Friday, November 16, 2007

Farm Innovation: Walnut Waste Into Energy

Farm Innovation: Walnut Waste Into Energy
By Danny Bernardini/Staff Writer

Russ Lester, owner of Dixon Ridge Farms in Winters, recently installed a system that converts walnut hulls into power and heat. (Rick Roach/The Reporter)

Standing where a gigantic mound of walnut hulls and shells sat just a month ago, a Winters farmer showed off his new toy this week - a machine that turns those walnut remains into energy for his farm.

Russ Lester, owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, was all smiles earlier this week as he unveiled the latest gadget on his farm. The BioMax 50, produced by the Community Power Corporation of Colorado, converts a range of biomass residues into energy, heat and eventually synthetic diesel fuel.

With the BioMax machine, GPS-guided tractors and 3,500 square feet of solar panels on the roofs of his farm, Lester said he has fully embraced a new ideology of farming. Although he admits the goal is lofty, his mission is to make his farm completely sustainable

"That's just the way we operate," Lester said while giving a tour of the machine. "We really embrace sustainable energy."

The BioMax machine is one of four in the world and one of only two being used on farms. Lester was able to obtain the $300,000 to $400,000 machine with grants, but did put about $30,000 into pouring concrete and other infrastructure.

Also on hand Tuesday were Community Power Corporation executives. Owner and President Robb Walt said he hopes to see more farms follow Lester's lead.

"The goal is to make farms completely energy sufficient," Walt said. "We like to say 'off the grid, off the pipeline.' This is an exciting solution to on-farm energy."

Some of the merits of the machine were on display as well. Heat being produced by the BioMax was being funneled into several walnut dryers, substituting for the propane Lester usually has to pay for. A canopy over the dryers then re-circulated the air back into the walnuts, re-using 40 percent of the heat.

He said during a typical four- or five-week drying season, his farm uses about 9,000 gallons of propane a week. That won't be necessary any longer.

"He re-uses the (discarded) shells, to dry the fresh shells," Walt said.

Getting the BioMax was more luck than anything else, Lester said. Through talking with an associate about sustainable energy, Community Power Corporation's name came up and the idea of burning the walnut hulls and shells was mentioned.

Lester said he made the call in the spring and talked with the company about the possibility of acquiring such a machine, but no deal was made.

"Then, about a month later, he called and asked me if I was still interested," Lester said. "It was one of those lucky things."

Lester's gain in acquiring the machine was a lumber mill's loss.

Walt said after six years of negotiating with a Northern California mill for wood, the deal finally fell through.

A few months later, Lester had his farm ready for installation of the BioMax 50.

"It's all about controlling the energy destination of our farms," Walt said. "It used to be all about making a profit. Once it's paid for, it's all free energy."

The BioMax 50, one of two operating in the world, converts walnut hulls into power and heat at Dixon Ridge Farms in Winters. It's one of many tools that owner Russ Lester is using to save energy and money at his farm. (Rick Roach/The Reporter) by 2012.

Danny Bernardini can be reached at

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