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Two local crops have many uses, including fuel

October 03, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

The air has changed and there is a little of a chill now, especially in the evening.

This is a sure sign fall is here and, with, it harvest - the time when farmers glean their fields for the season's return and lampposts and porches don cornstalks and pumpkins.

At this point in the year, farmers are harvesting corn and soybeans. Many of the area's dairy farmers have already filled their silos with corn silage and are joining their neighbors in shelling the remainder of the corn as grain.

In addition to feeding corn and soybeans to livestock, there are thousands of uses of these grains all around you.

Corn is one of the major sweeteners used by the food industry. For example, all of the 39 grams of sugar in a can of Coca-Cola come from high fructose corn syrup.

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This is not an exceptional circumstance, take a minute and read the labels of your food produce and corn syrup will show up more than you think.

In addition to sweeteners, corn is used in common things like cooking oil, breads and cereals and uncommon things like paints and plastics.

Soybeans are also common in cooking oil, as well as being found in salad dressing, margarine, cereals and breads, and as a protein source in vegetarian meals.

More recently, these two grains have resurfaced in the fuel arena.

While not new, ethanol and bio-diesel are back in the limelight due to increased oil prices and their ability to reduce pollution.

In addition, corn and soybeans are renewable - unlike fossil fuels.

Corn has long been distilled to make everything from "white lightning" to alcohol as an additive for gasoline.

Ethanol can be added up to a mixture of 85 percent ethanol to 15 percent gasoline. In many cases, ethanol will be added at a lower concentration, but it will take the place of MTBE, the current oxygenate used by many oil companies. While ethanol is more expensive than MTBE, it is cleaner and safer than MTBE, a known carcinogen.

Folks my age or older will remember the first time ethanol came on the scene during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. Hopefully, the current dip in oil prices won't derail our progress toward renewable energy sources, as happened when the embargo lifted.

Bio-diesel is also now a buzz word but again, not a new technology. While the process has been modernized, bio-diesel was used by the Third Reich during World War II. Bio-diesel is simply adding vegetable oil to petrol diesel.

The benefits of these two fuels are obviously renewable and cleaner, but they also add little if nothing to the wastestream.

For example, the distillers' grain left over from ethanol production is being fed to livestock. Soybean meal, soy hulls and glycerin, all byproducts from bio-diesel production, are all usable by many different industries. Soybean meal can be fed to both livestock and people. Soy hulls are used in feed products and glycerin is used in lubricants and makeup.

In addition to producing grains for cleaner burning fuels, after harvest most farmers are planting cover crops to hold the soil and use any residual nutrients. This practice helps protect our water sources by reducing runoff and leaching.

Now you know why those once brown fields begin to turn green even though it is fall.

So what can the average person do to take part?

First, as these green fuels become available, use them.

Second, ask your fuel retailer to start offering them.

And lastly, now that the acres in farmland are less than the acres in lawns and parking lots, evaluate your contribution to run-off pollution.

I trust you will enjoy the changing weather and colors of fall.

Until next time, pick a pumpkin or get lost in a corn maze.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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