Down on the biodiesel farm

John Deere, the tractor manufacturer, can't get enough of that biofuel love.

Published March 29, 2007 5:13PM (EDT)

John Deere, the farm machinery colossus, has been riding high of late, reports the Wall Street Journal today. The reason: ethanol. "High prices for corn, which is used to make ethanol, are translating into higher sales of combines and large tractors for the Moline, Ill., company."

My first reaction upon learning this news was to think: how ironic, a boom in the production of a supposedly renewable biofuel is encouraging the sale of machines that burn fossil fuels. And I wondered, just what kind of miles-per-gallon average do state-of-the-art tractors and combines get?

As it turns out, tractor fuel efficiency isn't measured in miles per gallon, but in horsepower hours per gallon (the amount of fuel required to pull or lift something for a given period of time). According to tests by the independently operated Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory, the newest John Deere tractors have some of the highest fuel-efficiency ratings yet recorded. So, all to the good; How the World Works is a strong supporter of ever-increasing levels of fuel efficiency in new machinery.

But what hadn't occurred to me was something that in retrospect should have been an utter no-brainer: John Deere is a big supporter of biofuels. Increased demand for biofuels translates into increased profits for corn and soybean farmers; and what's good for those farmers is grand for those who would like to sell them new equipment.

John Deere is especially supportive of biodiesel, as opposed to ethanol. There are a number of reasons to prefer biodiesel to ethanol (for a good summary you can check out last year's wrap-up by Robert Rapier). For starters, the energy efficiency of biodiesel made from soybeans is significantly better than that of ethanol made from corn. For another, engines that run on diesel need little modification to run on some blends of biodiesel. That doesn't mean much for American car-drivers, who have limited options for driving diesel automobiles, but it's a big deal in the farm machinery world, where diesel is the predominant fuel. Since 2005, in fact, John Deere tractors made in North America ship from the factory with their tanks filled with B-2 biodiesel -- a blend of 98 percent petroleum-derived diesel with 2 percent biodiesel.

Two percent may not sound like all that much, but in 2005, the U.S. only produced about 75 million gallons of biodiesel, which is less than two-tenths of one percent of the 55 billion gallons of diesel consumed that year. To get all the diesel engines in the U.S. running on B-2 biodiesel would require a significant production ramp-up.

For a slick, yet compellingly folksy summary of John Deere's feelings about biodiesel, you can check out a video from the company in which Don Borgman, John Deere's director of agricultural industry relations for North America, stands in the middle of a field in Missouri that his family has farmed since the 1800s. A hundred years or so ago, he noted, that field probably produced hay for the horses that plowed it. Soon, he predicted, it will be growing soybeans for the biodiesel that will fuel the tractors rumbling through.

Which brings up the question: Was there a huge debate over food vs. fuel issues when horses were the primary mode of transportation and delivery mechanism for, uh, horsepower? Or did farmers and society manage to figure out a sustainable balance between those competing demands before the industrial revolution changed everything?

(As a final side note, I feel compelled to note that when I last checked the Wikipedia page for John Deere, the person, the bio included the lines: "He loved to beat off all night" and "He smoked pot for most of his life, but was still a good man." A review of the page's history indicated that those edits had been made early this morning, and I assume that they will be gone within the hour, but still... I'm a huge fan of Wikipedia, but that was not a confidence-building moment.)

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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