In late 2013, Blue Ridge Biofuels took a bold leap toward developing a closed-loop biodiesel system for Western North Carolina when it produced its first batch of non-GMO, expeller-pressed canola cooking oil through a community partnership called the Field to Fryer to Fuel project.
The effort, known as F3, aims to eventually reduce WNC’s dependence on imported fuels by creating a circular economy among the area’s agriculture, restaurant and biofuel industries. The idea is that local farmers will grow non-GMO oilseeds, such as canola, sunflower, soybeans or grapeseed, which will then be cold-pressed into cooking oil that will ultimately be collected and recycled into biodiesel to fuel the tractors, trucks and machinery that keep the process running.
In its pilot phase, the initiative was a collaborative effort funded by a grant from the Biofuels Center of North Carolina involving organizations including Advantage West Economic Development Group, Appalachian State University and the Catawba County EcoComplex. The project has had its share of growing pains but now seems to be maturing, with a brand-new pressing facility coming online in Catawba County this spring.
To get a running start, F3 originally began operating through a partnership with AgStrong, an organic and non-GMO oilseed-crushing plant in Bowersville, Ga. Much of the canola and sunflower seed used was grown by partner farmers in Georgia and surrounding states, with the cooking oil products being marketed to Asheville restaurants since 2015.
“The project evolved in such a way where we started marketing a non-GMO canola and sunflower product that was produced in the Southeast within 100 miles of Asheville, so it was, by some people’s standards, local,” says Woodrow Eaton, Blue Ridge Biofuels CEO and general manager.
Season of change
Things hummed along smoothly for a while, with about a dozen local restaurants eventually sourcing the product through partner business Mountain Food Products. But early this year, the project was forced to dive into the next stage of development when the Georgia operation was suddenly no longer able to process for BRB consistently. “We had a hiccup that turned into an opportunity,” says Eaton.
In a stroke of good fortune, the same week in late February that the partnership with AgStrong ended, BRB was able to secure a space to open its own processing plant — one that’s a little closer to home. While the company’s headquarters and distribution hub are in Asheville, its biodiesel factory is about 80 miles from Asheville in Catawba County, and the new oil-pressing facility is right across the street.
The operation is now in a state of transition. “We’re in the process of bringing that [new facility] online to process seed that we’re buying from local and regional farmers,” Eaton explains.
For the time being, BRB is buying non-GMO oil from another supplier to meet its current demand. Most of the equipment for the new factory — including screw presses for cold-pressing the oil from the seeds plus a refiner and bleacher — are already in place, and Eaton predicts that everything will be ready for production in a month or two.
Forging partnerships with WNC growers, however, is going to take a little longer. “At this point in time, we’re just wanting to prove our production process before we get into long-term relationships with farmers,” says Eaton.
The timeline for closing that loop — for bringing growers onboard, getting fields planted and harvesting seeds for the presses — could be anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. The earliest Eaton foresees that happening is fall 2018 or winter 2019.
The restaurant perspective
Thus far, the program, which BRB considers something of a side project, has not been marketing its products aggressively. But as the new production system gains momentum, the company plans to expand its reach within the local restaurant industry.
Asheville restaurants Corner Kitchen and Chestnut have been involved with F3 since 2013, when Blue Ridge Food Ventures helped debut the effort by inviting a few local chefs and restaurateurs to taste oils from the inaugural batch. Since the products have gone into distribution, both eateries have continued to use them in their kitchens.
Vanessa Salomo, the restaurants’ director of business development, says there are a lot of reasons to choose F3 oil. She mentions its versatility — it can be used both in deep-frying and as a base oil for cooking and even vinaigrettes — and its long life in the fryer when properly filtered each day.
The businesses, which dispose of their spent oil for recycling into biodiesel through BRB, are also very keen on the product’s sustainability profile. “We really like the concept of its low impact to our environment as well as keeping our local economy strong,” says Salomo.
She notes a couple drawbacks, though, including the price, which she says is almost twice that of some commercially produced oils. She also says the product’s recent availability issues have at times left the restaurants “scrambling to obtain a product that we have committed to use.”
Regarding the cost, Eaton acknowledges that F3 products, which are marketed wholesale in 35-pound tubs, tend to be a little more expensive than other non-GMO oils due to economy of scale since the operation is very small. “I couldn’t say exactly what the difference is, but we try to be as competitive as possible,” he says. “Plus we’re sourcing non-GMO seed, and we try to source the most sustainable seed that we can, and that does have a cost.”
But Mountain Food Products owner Ron Ainspan says that while GMO canola oils tend to be cheaper, he’s found that F3 oils are generally comparable in price with similarly produced non-GMO products. “It was maybe 10 percent higher [when the program was] with AgStrong,” he says. “When I priced it out for the new facility, it seems to be running about $1 a pound.”
Regardless, an increased cost doesn’t seem to be a deal-breaker for many restaurants. Ainspan says the demand for the F3 oil in WNC has outstripped its current availability.
Some locals, howver, have concerns about F3 beyond product availability and price points. Shortly after the program launched in 2013, local forager, author and sustainability activist Alan Muskat posted on his website a two-part treatise, “F3, a Canola of Worms,” calling attention to controversial health, agricultural and environmental issues that have been associated with the production and consumption of canola and soybean oils.
In the articles, Muskat condemns the deleterious environmental impact of monoculture crops like canola and soy and urges WNC residents and the F3 project to transition from vegetable-based oils to animal and nut fats, such as lard and native hickory nut oil, for both nutrition and fuel purposes.
Today, Muskat maintains his stance, advocating for a paradigm shift when it comes to the oils we use. “The point is that if you’re really going to do any good in this world rather than just perpetuate the problem, you have to take a larger view,” he says.
Hickory nut oil, he says, is a better option than canola or soy, leveraging a material that’s already locally plentiful with excellent culinary qualities, including a smoke point similar to that of canola and soy.
Nutty Buddy Collective co-organizer Bill Whipple agrees. Whipple and the other foragers and sustainability activists in the local group are doing small-scale commercial production of expeller-pressed wild nut oils from a facility at Smith Mill Works in West Asheville. In recent months, they’ve begun some low-key promotion of their oils in Asheville’s restaurant community. (See “Nuts in the Kitchen: Acornucopia Project Envisions and Edible Future for WNC,” Xpress, Feb. 22.)
Whipple also echoes Muskat’s sentiment about the urgent need to initiate fundamental transitions in how we approach agriculture and consumption. “If one looks at the bigger picture and weighs the external costs of canola and external benefits of trees, perhaps the fryers of Asheville diminish in importance,” he says.
“We need to create a market demand for tree crops in order to incentify farmers to, first, get over the ludicrous idea that pastures need to be barren of trees and, second, to plant them,” he continues, noting that it would take about 20 years for oil orchards to come into production and become economically competitive.
Looking to the future
Eaton contends that given the current agricultural system and the production needs of restaurants, the reality right now is that most cooking oil used in professional kitchens tends to come from monocrop sources. Furthermore, it’s usually transported hundreds or even thousands of miles from distant farms.
“We feel that providing a local oil is much more sustainable than trucking it in from Canada or the Midwest,” he says. “If people want to use fryer or cooking oils, they’re coming from these other sources, so we’re trying to provide a sustainable option for that. If other options become available that are viable, then we’d definitely support that.”
Although F3 is currently focused mainly on canola, the equipment at the new Catawba County facility is flexible enough to process a long list of materials, Eaton says. “We’ve had requests for lots of different products ranging from red raspberry seed to grapeseed, so we want to definitely get into those products as well. It’s just a matter of finding sources of that locally.”
And using locally foraged nuts isn’t out of the question but does present some significant hurdles. “One of the big problems is that to make a decent supply of oil, you have to have a large volume of material to work with, and nuts are very challenging, especially black walnut because you have to dehull it,” he explains. “So, if we could solve all the problems around it, then yes.”
In the meantime, Chris Reberg-Horton, associate professor of crop and soil sciences at N.C. State University, believes canola offers some options for local farmers interested in growing it for F3. “I think canola can fit sustainably into a crop rotation,” he says. “It rotates very well with other small grains, such as wheat, oats and barley. It’s also harvested early enough in the spring that soybeans can be planted immediately afterward, giving farmers the ability to harvest two crops in one year.”
And Ainspan, a former farmer who has been distributing organic produce and local food products in WNC since the 1980s, believes the program is full of potential. “There’s opportunity for this to become a very sustainable venture in the next few months,” he says. “And I hope that within the next few years, they can really close this into a completely sustainable system.”