South Valley ethanol puts call out for sorghum

Corn kernels litter the ground at the Calgren Renewable Fuels ethanol plant in Pixley in this 2008 photo. The plant is exploring making ethanol out of sorghum.Corn kernels litter the ground at the Calgren Renewable Fuels ethanol plant in Pixley in this 2008 photo. The plant is exploring making ethanol out of sorghum.The Valley’s only ethanol production plant is encouraging local farmers to plant grain sorghum next spring, promising to buy the grain to make ethanol instead of using Midwestern corn.

“We would love to buy all the sorghum they can produce,” said Lyle Schlyer, president of Calgren Renewable Fuels near Pixley in Tulare County.

Currently, the 55-million-gallon ethanol plant depends almost 100 percent on trainloads of corn shipped from the Midwest to make the biofuel. The sky-high price of corn due, to the record Midwest drought this summer, is putting the hurt on the livestock industry, raising food prices and making for negative margins at most ethanol plants.

Meanwhile, ethanol makers are taking heat for high corn prices from dairymen and the livestock industry, which are now pressuring Washington to roll back renewable fuel requirements. Ironically, those fuel requirements were put in place to reduce carbon emissions that cause global warming, implicated in more extreme weather events like the drought.

Calgren has teamed up with the J.D. Heiskell grain company of Tulare and seed company Bill B. Vanola Grain & Seed of Stratford. Jeff Chedester, sales manager with Vanola, said 20 years ago there were tens of thousands of acres of sorghum grown in the Valley, but farmers converted mostly to corn. Today, Chedester estimates the region grows only about 5000 acres of grain sorghum.

“I don’t see any reason why we could not grow that crop to 25,000 acres plus,” said Chedester, who for the past month has talked up the idea with area growers with some success.

As a result of discussions earlier this year, several local growers planted some 1,100 new acres of the crop, Chedester said. Later this fall, that sorghum will be run through the Calgren plant with the theory being that no significant modifications will be needed in the facility to make ethanol. 

“We’re pretty exited about it,” Schlyer said, adding that “we will do a test run through the plant this year” to make sure it processes as expected, likely from Chedester’s growers’ local crop. ”Our target would be to offset about 20 percent of the 20 million bushels of corn we need to bring in. If we did a lot more, we would have to figure out how to store it, but we are not putting a cap on it,” Schlyer said.

Sorghum is used to make biofuel in some states with a larger crop. Forty-three percent of the sorghum produced in Kansas and 23 percent of the sorghum produced in Texas is used to make ethanol, according to an industry source.

Chedester said benefits of producing sorghum include the fact that the grain will grow in high pH — salty — soil, uses a third of the water that corn requires, uses half the fertilizer and the seed costs about 20 percent of the current seed price for corn.

On the production side, farmers will get around three tons per acre for sorghum compared to five tons per acre for corn, “but with the lower input costs and lower water use, this really does pencil out,” Chedester said.

Josh Dejung of J.D. Heiskell says like with grain corn, the processing of sorghum at the ethanol plant puts out a distiller’s grain feed byproduct fed to cows — nutritious and cheaper than corn distiller’s grain that is an important part of ethanol plants’ margins. Dejung says he has been spending more time in Kern County talking to farmers now that his company has a grain facility near Bakersfield after they bought an old cotton gin.

Pixley is ideally located to take in grain from Kern, Kings and Tulare counties — within a 20-30 mile radius.

Schlyer said buying local helps save transportation costs for everyone since all California ethanol makers must pay to bring most of the feedstock in 100-car trainloads from the Midwest. Pacific Ethanol’s Paul Koehler said his company’s Stockton plant now uses about 11 percent locally grown corn. Lowering the transportation distance also makes the fuel produced greener as new state rules are phased in.

Using grain sorghum instead of corn should ease concerns of the California livestock and dairy industry — Calgren’s neighbors — who complain that using corn to make biofuel drives up the price of rolled corn they use to feed cattle. “This should help lower the price of corn,” said Chedester, who is part of a larger nationwide effort to increase sorghum planting for renewable uses.

Chedester said to increase the certainty this will happen, his firm will contract with growers sometimes even before the crop is planted.

While California farmers have had a tight water year, it is not nearly as bad as the Midwest where they do not irrigate, depending on summer rain for the crop. Watching the impending drought in the Midwest developing earlier this summer, California farmers raced to plant a late corn crop, sources soy, looking to reap the harvest late this fall.