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Biodiesel crop struggles

Unlike the iconic gold-panning ramblers of yore, today’s prospectors depend on tractors and heavy machinery to mine their bounty.

Unlike the iconic gold-panning ramblers of yore, today’s prospectors depend on tractors and heavy machinery to mine their bounty.

But new technology means bringing diesel fuel to a place known more for its wilderness than its refineries.

That’s why some agrologists with the Yukon government are figuring out how to grow biodiesel out of the wild things themselves.

On a small piece of land just off the Hot Springs Road, agrologist Matt Ball and research technician Bradley Barton tend to the four two-by-two-metre square lots, where the government is growing experimental crops to be used for biodiesel.

It’s a gamble intended to ease fuel costs for businesses stymied by isolation.

The testing began in 2006 at the request of Yukoners looking to find out whether they could depend on a source of fuel a little closer to home, say the pair who work for Energy, Mines and Resources’ agriculture branch.

“We started this project because there is interest in the farming community and the mining industry in producing their own fuel for tractors and generators,” said Ball.

Biodiesel is made from either oil seeds, used vegetable oil or animal fat. It’s currently a widely used alternative to petroleum-based fuel in Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States. Across Canada, farmers are catching on to the trend, including many enthusiasts who make their own fuel.

According to the department’s website, diesel engine manufacturers have approved the use of five per cent biodiesel content without affecting engine warranties.

The Yukon project is being done in concert with the Energy Solutions Centre.

The trials include four different plants, and none of them are genetically modified. There are two types of canola, Polish and Argentine, growing alongside false flax and regular flax. False flax is a kind of weed and also goes by the name Camelina sativa.

Because it can grow in cold temperatures and in rugged, dry earth, it is showing the best results of the four candidates, said Ball.

“The false flax definitely stands out, it’s a shorter season variety,” he said. “It’s the most mature this year and the Polish canola is showing pretty quick maturity as well.”

There are two ways to make biodiesel from plant seeds. The seeds can be crushed to extract the oil from the mash, which can be used for animal feed.

There is also a chemical extraction process, which can almost completely extract all the oil from the seeds, said Ball.

Growing biodiesel in the Yukon wouldn’t have an effect on food prices because of the minute size of the crop should it become popular with farmers here, he said.

“From our project’s perspective, the land that would be used for these oil seeds would be part of a rotation,” said Ball.

“In most cases, you wouldn’t be taking out food crops. It would be part of forages with potatoes and grains.”

This was a telltale year because of the cold summer, and results were far less encouraging than the last two years, he said.

“This year we’re not seeing much maturity,” he said. “If you were a farmer this year, even with the false flax, you probably wouldn’t be making much money.”

There are more than 150 farms reporting income from agriculture in the territory, said Ball.

There will also be some lingering questions about how to get rid of some of the fats in the biodiesel in a cold climate, like the Yukon, he said.

“You got to watch lines gumming up with fatty acids,” he added.

The trial ends next year.