New biodiesel crop Jatropha taking off in S.W. Florida

The roots for a new energy crop in Southwest Florida have been planted.

In LaBelle, a company called My Dream Fuel LLC is cultivating Jatropha curcas, a tree-shrub that shows promise as a new biodiesel crop in the U.S. that could one day power engines and generators.

Nearly 1 million seedlings are in the ground at a nursery in Hendry County and promoters are looking for farmers – here and across the country – to raise them as oil-producing plants.

Researchers say the plant can produce four times more fuel per acre than soy, and 10 times more than corn.

The demand for oil from the plant already is strong, said Paul Dalton, a former child advocate and attorney who owns My Dream Fuel.

“There are about 100 buyers for every gallon you produce,” he said.

His company soon will open a $1.5 million, 15,000-square-foot center for seed crushing and plant cloning at the State Farmers’ Market off Edison Avenue in Fort Myers.

The Jatropha tree, native to Mexico and Latin America, has been grown in other countries, such as India and Africa, for fuel and medicine. It produces fruit with oily seeds that can be crushed to make biodiesel.

In India, there are large plantations with millions of Jatropha trees and My Dream Fuel has a contract with the government to train 1,500 farmers to grow the trees. In China, there are now more than 1 million acres of Jatropha growing.

Locally, Dalton has so much faith in the trees that he expects to put another 1 million in the ground in LaBelle before June.

His company is one of the first to do large plantings of trees in the U.S., he said.

Some of the trees came from a cloning plant in Mysore, India, and some came from the company’s own testing program.

The cloning plant here will be able to churn out plants at the rate of 1 million a month, Dalton said.

“We studied our mother trees that we use to clone for over six years, and we have over 500 of them. So we have the largest bank of mother trees in the world, of any company,” he said.

In Southwest Florida and across the state, more crushing plants are planned to keep up with the expected growth in demand for Jatropha oil.

In Collier County, the small farming town of Immokalee is being scoped as a possible site for a processing plant that would produce biodiesel from the oil.

Leading that effort is Golden Gate Estates resident Dave Wolfley, the owner of Sunshine Biofuels, a start-up company formed two years ago to build an alternative fuel plant.

The biggest issue had been finding the feedstock.

Jatropha is just what Wolfley has been searching for.

“There is a ton of money in it,” he said.

He’s searching for large landowners in Southwest Florida who are willing to give Jatropha a try. He said he’s found a few, but he won’t reveal their names.

Concerned about pollution and the country’s dependence on foreign oil, Wolfley has developed a small processing plant in his garage where he uses waste vegetable oil from restaurants to cook up his own biodiesel to fuel a Jeep and a Ford pickup truck.

Dalton expects his seedlings to go quickly. Last year, his company sold its entire inventory of about 12,000 trees in four days, he said. Back then, the trees were in pots and there wasn’t a nursery.

“We know of a couple of groups from New York and from Spain that want to plant in Texas and Brazil. So in the next couple of weeks, we may exhaust our current supply,” Dalton said.

In Southwest Florida, Dalton is targeting citrus growers with diseased trees and cattle ranchers looking to diversify.

The dreaded canker and greening diseases have left thousands of acres of citrus land sitting bare, which could be used to grow the new energy crop. The hardy Jatropha is more resistant to disease and can survive a three-year drought.

The Jatropha crop has the potential to be more profitable than citrus, Dalton said.

The average farmer can gross a little more than $2,000 an acre annually at current prices, and the plants live 40 to 50 years, he said.

The main expense for the grower is the plant itself. A seedling costs $3, with a $2 planting fee.

My Dream Fuel offers to plant and harvest the trees mechanically for growers. Under the arrangement, growers prepare the fields and maintain them. The plants require an occasional watering and virtually no fertilizing.

“It’s such an easy tree to care for. It doesn’t really require much at all,” Dalton said.

For the first 500 gallons of oil produced, larger growers get all the profits. After that, there’s a sharing arrangement.

In all, My Dream Fuel has about 1.5 million trees in the ground in Southwest Florida.

Eight months ago, Dalton donated 1,500 seedlings to Lee County for several test plots, including one on a nearly 1-acre farm in the Buckingham area.

LaBelle Grove Management in Hendry County also purchased young trees for an experiment of its own.

The test projects have gone well, Dalton said.

A few other growers are trying Jatropha in Southwest Florida, but they’re keeping it quiet, in part because they want to stay ahead of the competition, he said.

Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, representing growers in a five-county region, said he hasn’t heard that growers are jumping all over the idea.

But the potential for a new crop has created a buzz in the industry.

“I haven’t heard anything negative about it,” Hamel said.

Locally, environmentalists don’t seem to be raising a big fuss about Jatropha.

“If it lives up to its promise of being a very productive source for biofuel, then great,” said Brad Cornell, a policy advocate for Audubon of Florida and the Collier County Audubon Society.

The society doesn’t support growing corn for ethanol because there’s no efficient way to do it, and there are concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Roy Beckford, an agricultural and natural resource agent for the University of Florida/IFAS in Lee County, has pushed Jatropha as an alternative crop for South Florida growers for years.

He said it’s actually good for the environment because one acre of plantings, which is about 600 trees, will remove four metric tons of carbon dioxide gas from the air a year.

Beckford is overseeing several experiments with Jatropha in Lee County. He’s also working with a few farmers with plans to grow the trees commercially on 10-acre plots in North Fort Myers and Arcadia.

One grower in Lee County has set aside 200 acres for the promising crop, Beckford said.

“Certainly in our area we are kind of pioneering this whole thing,” he said.