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Originally published Wednesday, February 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Snohomish County opinion

Old MacDonald had a fuel ...

Alternative fuels have got to be one of the hottest topics around. Every paper, news report or politician has something to say on the subject...

Special to The Times

Alternative fuels have got to be one of the hottest topics around. Every paper, news report or politician has something to say on the subject. While a skeptic may doubt these fuels will wean us from our oil dependence, that doesn't relieve us of the duty and responsibility to pursue these goals.

What can and should we in Snohomish County be doing about alternative fuels? Starting with the easy ones, wind and solar, the answer is simple: With winds that are inconsistent and sun that often seems nonexistent in our county, these forms of alternative fuels might best be left to those in other locales. Co-generation plants are good for the timber industry but bad for dairy and other livestock operations, as the bedding cost for sawdust, one of the ingredients these co-generational plants burn, has nearly doubled. But the increase in bedding costs to dairy farmers may be a blessing in disguise, as one of the byproducts of a biogas plant, after turning cow manure into electricity, is a fiber that makes a great bedding material for animals.

A biogas plant (also called an anaerobic digester) is being built south of Monroe, and another one is being considered in Stanwood. An increase in demand, and thus value, may make the difference in profitability for these alternative-energy facilities that operate with dairy-animal waste.

On another front, biodiesel, which is made by crushing the seeds and processing the oil from oil-seed plants such as mustard, canola, sunflowers and soybeans, is also under consideration in Snohomish County.

County farmers have been researching the viability of canola and mustard seed since 2004. In 2006, local farmers partnered with Snohomish County to plant and harvest, in a test project, 52 acres of canola and mustard at five locations in the county.

The results, while still being processed, are very promising, indicating that Snohomish County farms may be able to produce yields that could compete with anyplace in the world. But we also need crushing and processing facilities in the county to convert these crops tousable, high-quality fuel.

Our test crop cost $1,600 per load for transportation to Hermiston, Ore., for processing. We need local facilities to keep those transportation costs closer to $160 per load.

Ethanol, currently the 800-pound gorilla as far as alternative fuels produced by agriculture are concerned, is a little farther behind in Snohomish County. While I personally don't know anyone currently contemplating ethanol from the distillation of corn, I certainly believe someone will pursue the idea. There may be more of an interest in gasification as a means of ethanol production here. Gasification is a process of burning a crop and removing ethanol from the smoke produced by that burning.

The future of alternative fuels in Snohomish County is very promising, surely for those who wish to process and market them, and most certainly for the farmers and growers who may grow these feed stocks locally.

These crops would allow crop rotation that helps keep the soils healthy. They'd be cash crops that can help farmers withstand market swings or major weather problems. And they would definitely increase use of one's investments in land and equipment.

Alternative fuels produced by agriculture could save farming in urban counties such as Snohomish. Productive, profitable farmland keeps farmers on the land and the land out of reach of developers.

Purchase of development rights and transfer of development rights are wonderful programs, but they need to be coupled with a vibrant working farm community.

Alternative-energy crops could produce that vibrant agricultural community and be the answer for saving agriculture and all its values in Snohomish County.

Dale Reiner is a Snohomish County farm owner and past president of the Snohomish County Farm Bureau. He represents agriculture on County Executive Aaron Reardon's Citizens Cabinet on Economic Development, and also on the Snohomish River Basin Salmon Recovery Forum.

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