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Mustard Goes from Sandwiches to Biofuel to Bertilizer

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By Donna Jones

(MCT)- You can slather it on a ham sandwich, fuel up your pickup, maybe even kill the bugs in your garden. Ken Kimes has high hopes for mustard.

Kimes is president of Farm Fuel Inc., which was founded in 2007 with the aim of growing mustard for biofuel. Five years later, the company is marketing mustard seed meal as an organic fertilizer and is looking into its potential to replace chemical fumigants in the production of strawberries and other crops.

“It’s showing good promise at knocking back soil diseases,” said Kimes. “The alternatives for growers are narrowing and nonchemical alternatives would be acceptable to just about everyone.”

Farm Fuels hasn’t given up on biofuels, though it has perhaps scaled back its ambitions in that realm.

Last friday, Kimes was harvesting mustard on 45 acres in Pescadero, Calif., with the help of a 1960s vintage combine. After harvest, the mustard seed will be processed at the company’s warehouse on Coward Road in Watsonville, Calif., to separate the oil from the meal.

Kimes estimated “if everything goes well” the harvest would produce about 1,500 pounds of seed, or about 60 gallons of oil per acre.

In terms of energy, it’s a net gain, he said. Still, in the bigger scheme of the nation’s energy needs, “it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

“It became clear to us the oil was not going to support (the business). We had to have value in the meal.”

So while Farm Fuels board member Henry Smith runs his Ford pickup on the oil, the company is working with researchers looking into mustard seed’s potential as an organic pesticide.

“That’s the most exciting part,” said Kimes, who owns New Natives, a Corralitos, Calif., organic farm.

Farmers are running out of options because the ozone-depleting chemical methyl bromide, long used to fumigate berry fields before planting to fight pests, weeds and soil-borne pathogens, is being phased out under international treaty and the manufacturer of a proposed replacement, methyl iodide, pulled its product from the United States last year amidst controversy about potential risks to the environment and public health.

Kimes envisions mustard seed meal as a nontoxic alternative. The glucosinolates that make mustard spicy also can help control agricultural pests, Kimes said.

Stephanie Boucier, Farm Fuels’ chief executive officer and research coordinator, said trials of mustard seed meal are ongoing at Pajaro Valley test plots.

The challenge has been finding the best way to utilize its potential, whether by combining it with other techniques or blending different mustard varieties, Boucier said.

Interest is growing among area farmers, she said.

But for now, the company’s mustard seed meal is being marketed for use as a fertilizer in home gardens and commercial operations under the name Pescadero Gold at Mountain Feed and Farm Supply and Plantworks in Ben Lomond, Staff of Life in Santa Cruz and Jacob’s Farm Farmstand in Pescadero.

Demand is beginning to outstrip production capabilities, and Farm Fuel is developing plans to ramp up in the next six months, Boucier said.

The company isn’t yet profitable.

“It’s a labor of love,” Boucier said. “Of course we would like to make a profit, but as a group we’re more motivated by what we can do environmentally for farmers and gardeners. Profits are great too, and we’re getting there.”

©2012 Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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