How California Can Grow Its Own Fuel, Jobs and Economy 2017-05-18T23:08:31+00:00

How California Can Grow Its Own Fuel, Jobs and Economy

BY JOE GERSHEN & Dr. Stephen Kaffka

March 21, 2016
California Biodiesel Industry Commentary

California has the largest value of agricultural production in the US. We grow more diverse food crops than any other state, and that food generates more revenue than the next two most important agricultural states, Texas and Iowa, combined. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, we are the most diverse agricultural state with over 400 commodities. We grow over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts – in aggregate that’s over 50% of all US produce grown right here in the Golden State. The dairy industry is also the largest in the US, in part because of the abundant by-products from those diverse food crops that are efficiently consumed by those cows. Our top ten valued commodities are milk, almonds, grapes, cattle, strawberries, lettuce, walnuts, tomatoes, pistachios and hay. California’s famous Mediterranean to semi-arid climate supports all this exceptional crop diversity, but it also allows for exceptional resource use efficiency in the crops and livestock produced in the state. Abundant sunshine, excellent soils and the ability to irrigate (except in severe droughts) allow for very high yields of most crops compared to the inputs used in farming.

California has the eighth largest economy in the world, and agricultural exports are a significant stimulus to that economy. But we also have the largest population in the country, which means we consume more as well. Given our size, abundance, diversity, efficiency, and capacity for innovation, doesn’t it seem like a good idea for California to also have a role in the burgeoning field of energy crop production? Of course it does! The technological excellence and exceptional natural endowment supporting the state’s agricultural industry mean that agriculture can also help to solve the climate and GHG problems facing all of us.

There are approximately 9 million acres of irrigated farmland in California. Depending on different methods of estimation, there are somewhere between 500,000 to a million acres that are currently idled or underproductive, due to the most severe drought in California’s recorded history, now in its fifth year. Although we’ve enjoyed some good rainfall this year, it’s extremely important that we don’t become complacent about good water conservation habits we’ve developed as a result of the drought.

That being said, there is a compelling argument for using some of that now idled land to grow what have become known as bioenergy crops, which are purpose-grown for use as fuel or energy feedstocks. Additionally, farming techniques known as “double-cropping” or “inter-cropping” might be utilized to dramatically improve efficiency of several hundred thousand acres of existing agricultural land in California.

For example, oil-seed crops such as canola or camelina may be double-cropped on young or replanted fruit and nut orchards with minimal effects on the main orchard crop. Some farmers currently grow short-term crops in new orchards to improve cash flow. Double cropping in young orchards using winter annual crops like oilseeds, which grow when trees are dormant and most of the state’s rainfall occurs, helps improve the overall productivity of land in the state, consistent with the calls of many to sustainably intensify farming, and spare land elsewhere for nature.

Another benefit of double cropping bioenergy crops is that bees finished with pollinating orchards will have an excellent source of pollen and nectar to strengthen hives and produce high-quality honey. Weeds may be more easily managed and soil erosion reduced compared to bare soils. So some new feedstock production on farms in California could be a real win-win situation for California and its growers, not to mention the jobs created in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the state when new businesses are established, or existing ones expanded based on increased availability of in-state feedstock.

If California is going to meet Governor Brown’s climate objectives, it’s estimated that over 7 billion gallons of low carbon biofuels will be needed annually by 2030. We all know that this number can change based on what actually happens in the next 14 years, but it seems logical and financially prudent to utilize our agricultural leadership and grow as many energy crops for biofuels feedstock as possible. Not to mention the growing bio-based chemicals sector which also relies on similar feedstock inputs. This would keep more energy dollars in the state. After all, if we’re going to consume that energy, and we know how to produce that energy, why would we give it away to the mid-west, the middle-east, or anywhere else for that matter if it can be produced competitively at home?

By increasing not only the production of the biofuels required to meet state GHG reduction goals, but also the production of feedstocks in the state, we would stimulate local business development with economic and social benefits for all Californians. This would include the entire value chain, from well-to-wheel, or in this case, from field-to-fuel. In-state production of biofuels and the feedstocks that they are made from would provide meaningful employment to thousands of Californians in disadvantaged communities, and the secondary and tertiary economic benefits generated by those jobs and businesses would be exponential.

Most readers of this publication know that substantial feedstocks exist in California for in-state biofuel production. These include many second-use fats and oils as well as agricultural, forest, livestock, wastewater and municipal residues.

We also know that increasing in-state production of biofuels will help California meet its waste diversion goals, including AB 1826 (Chesbro, 2014), which requires 75% diversion of commercial organic waste as of January 1, 2015. And increasing in-state biofuels will help to reduce wildfire impacts by converting forest biomass from high wildfire hazard zones to transportation fuels, as companies like Southwest Airlines and FedEx have contracted to do.

But many of you may be less aware of the tremendous potential of purpose grown crops such as, canola, camelina, rapeseed and mustards, energy beets, sorghum, salt-tolerant grasses and others that can be grown on fallow land, intercropped in orchards and vineyards, or cultivated as part of a sustainable crop rotation program. Crops that grow in winter, primarily on winter rains, like oilseeds such as canola and camelina may be particularly useful if climate change leads to warmer winters and dryer conditions generally.

Our business challenge is to figure out how to ensure that these energy crops will be profitable for growers but still produce feedstocks at a low enough price to be useful for biofuels – a challenge made even more difficult in a market with such competitively low fossil fuel prices. But increasing the number of crops available to growers is largely beneficial to agriculture for its own sake because it gives farmers more ways to make their farming systems more efficient, and to use the resources they have, like land and water, in an ever more productive manner.

If carbon intensity is properly calculated by addressing the techniques discussed, we predict it will be low enough that growers will be able to charge a premium for these bioenergy crops. For example, producing some winter annual oilseed crops in replacement orchards while they are young is a form of double cropping and avoids all possible indirect effects on land use elsewhere and can even be seen as saving land elsewhere that might be used for feedstock production under less favorable conditions. And growing these crops will not compete with food or feed as they will simply be expanding the use of underutilized or idled land.

I’ll discuss more detail about these crops and the compelling business case for growing them in California in a future article.