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Addison farmers swap dairy cows for a bid at biofuels

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

ADDISON — Tired of the financial ups and downs of Vermont’s flagging dairy industry, Addison farmers Paul and Mark Boivin sold off their cows 15 months ago — but these two brothers aren’t giving up on agriculture in Addison County.

They turned in their cows for a try at the biofuels industry, co-founding Vermont Golden Harvest BioFuels.

“Our goal is to try to make farming profitable again,” Paul Boivin said. “We sold our dairy heard a year ago last February with the idea of going into this new venture.”

Now, the two men are growing corn for area residents to burn as heating fuel, and exploring the viability in the Champlain Valley of a business growing soybeans and canola as biodiesel crops.

But this new venture isn’t without a certain number of challenges. Farmers looking to grow biofuels crops in Addison County face a few notable hurdles, Paul Boivin said, but perhaps the biggest one is the heavy clay soil found in many parts of the county that make no-tillage systems unrealistic, and farming more expensive.

Less tillage of soil reduces labor, fuel, irrigation and machinery costs, and can enhance soil quality by boosting water content and lowering erosion rates. These attributes — and the potential for higher profitability — make no-tillage systems attractive to farmers looking to lower their overhead.

But typically in Addison County, Boivin explained, farmers have to make as many as five or six passes over their field to plant crops, a process that is both time consuming and expensive.

So the Boivins, with the help of a nearly $10,000 grant from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, are investigating ways to use new technology to improve soil, reduce runoff and cut back on the labor that farmers pour into tilling. They hope the research will mark a step toward making biofuels a more profitable enterprise in the region.

“We’re hoping to be able to lower the cost of planting,” Boivin said.

The technique they’re exploring is called strip-tillage, and the Boivins are testing a piece of equipment called the Unverferth Zone Builder to see if strip-tillage could improve soil quality.

Strip-tillage falls between two opposing camps of farmers: those who till all of their planting ground, and those who leave their field entirely untilled. Using the strip-tillage method, farmers plow raised, narrow strips from one end of a field to the other, but leave soil on either side of the berms untouched. Typically, no more than one-fourth of the field is disturbed using this approach.

The method combines the soil drying and warming benefits of conventional tillage with the soil-protecting advantages of no-till, some specialists say.

Boivin and his brother, Mark, had been researching the strip-tillage system for about two years before moving forward. As they head into the test they still have “more questions … than we have answers,” Paul Boivin said.

The tilling research is one way that they’re hoping to make their burgeoning biofuels company more successful. Currently, the brothers are growing, drying and selling corn to heat homes, and are exploring organic, pesticide-resistant canola as a “foundation crop” that could be sold to other farmers looking to grow crops for liquid biofuels.

“Even at today’s prices, we can heat a house or a structure (using corn) for 60 percent of what it would cost you otherwise,” Boivin said.

The brothers also own one of the biggest presses in the state for extracting oil from soy and canola plants, which could be used to create biodiesel, and they’re currently putting in bagging facilities to package their bulk corn.

Last year’s corn crop was the Boivins’ first heating crop, but Paul Boivin said that he’s personally been heating his 1,500-square-foot home with corn for three years. Kernels of corn dried to below market standard — meaning they contain only 12 percent moisture — are burned much like one would burn wood in a woodstove. But Boivin said the corn doesn’t require the same level of attention that a wood stove demands.

RUNNING THE NUMBERS

He said that he can heat his own home with 130 to 150 bushels of dry corn each winter, and estimated that a bushel of dried corn contains 400,000 BTUs of heat.

Based on calculations the Boivins did using February 2008 fuel prices, the average cost of heating with corn — assuming a family uses 90 million BTUs of energy each year — comes in at $86.44 per month.

Burning natural gas to produce that same amount of heat would cost $106.33 per month, according to their figures that take a year’s worth of heating divided by 12 months, and burning wood or wood pellets would cost $130.07 or $140.63 per month, respectively. The Boivins estimate it would cost $187.71 per month to heat the same space using No. 1 fuel oil.

Boivin said that he and his brother only served around a half dozen home heating customers last year. They’d like to expand their customer base within a 60- or 80-mile radius of their home, and Boivin said that interest in their product is growing steadily.

“We can meet the needs of several hundred customers,” he said. “Our goal is to have our product (priced) so that people can save money heating their homes, and also we can make a reasonable living at it without becoming Exxon-Mobil.”

He said that, particularly if strip-tillage proves successful in Addison, he thinks growing biofuels like corn could help salvage the state’s agriculture industry, which currently depends on dairy farming for roughly 85 percent of its statewide receipts.

“I think that it could very easily make farming profitable in the state of Vermont again,” Boivin said. “The more dollars we can keep at home, the better off the state economy will be.”

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