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Regional Partnership Promotes "Buying Local" Movement and Creating Biofuels Industry

We highlight a partnership between local farmers and the military aimed at buying locally grown food and producing energy from local biofuel crops.  

Agriculture and the military.  They both depend on undeveloped areas of eastern North Carolina to exist.

“Agriculture needs farms and open space, military needs farms and open space.”

But as more people decide to make eastern North Carolina home, land used for farming and military training are slowly disappearing.  The pilot program Food and Fuel 4 the Forces was initiated in 2009 as a way to mitigate the loss of agricultural lands and forests and preserve areas suitable for training. George Miller is the Program Manager of the regional partnership.

“It was initially implemented by Eastern Region’s Military Growth Task Force until 2011 when the Marine Corp picked up funding for it.  So since 2011, it’s been a Marine Corp funded program.” 

Miller says the Marine Corp will continue to provide funding for the program through the end of 2014.  Food and Fuel 4 the Forces works closely with the Military Growth Task Force, Marine Corp, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Department of Agriculture, and many other organizations.

One of the objectives of the program is to leverage food demand at local military bases by supporting local farmers.  Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune and New River spend about 37 million dollars each year on food at mess halls, most of it coming from Foster Caviness in Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Of that, Miller says about 1.5 million dollars is used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, money that could go to pay local farmers for produce grown here in eastern NC.

“Our goal is to make sure to the extent possible that things that the Marine Corp buys, they buy from the local farmers so the local farmers are feeding the local warriors and keeping the economic benefits close to home to help maintain the agricultural nature of eastern North Carolina.”

In addition to providing an economic boost for these growers and the local economy, Miller says they’re ensuring training areas for the military.

“As long as it’s farms and forests, train at night, make loud noises.  And so, the military doesn’t survive the urbanization of an area. So, if we can add value to those lands, additional crop opportunities or additional market outlets, then it helps maintain lands and their current use and protect them against development and other less compatible uses to military training.”

Another objective of Food and Fuel 4 the Forces is to leverage the Marine Corp’s demand for renewable energy and to inspire the growth of a renewable fuels industry in eastern North Carolina. The local military bases are already purchasing biofuel from local companies, but the biofuel is trucked here from other states.  Each year, Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune and New River use an estimated 350,000 gallons of B-20 biodiesel that they get from Potter Oil and Tire Company in Aurora.  But Miller says building a biofuels industry in eastern North Carolina would be good for the environment and the economy.

“The eventual use of cellulosic ethanol from trees, forest trash, or purpose grown energy crops would be a benefit to the foresters and then the possibility of purpose grown energy crops or oil seeds, camelina, canola, that type of stuff, if the military can utilize their purchasing power in helping initiate that industry.”

Growing energy crops is new to our area.  According to Miller, even though there are currently no commercially purpose grown energy crop producers in the state, Coastal North Carolina is actually an ideal place to grow energy crops such as camilena, canola, soybeans, and switchgrass.  Food and Fuel 4 the Forces began experimenting by planting a 25 acres plot of canola in Jones County in 2011, which has proven to be a small, but successful venture.

“Crushed it, NC State had a mechanical crusher they crushed it for us, and then we spun that into diesel actually Piedmont Biodiesel spun it back into biodiesel and sold it back to the Marine Corp.

Even if more North Carolina farmers began producing energy crops, the problem Miller says is that energy crops-especially canola - can be sold to the food industry for about four times what it’s worth for biodiesel.  He adds that currently, eastern North Carolina also lacks the real infrastructure to support an energy crop industry.

“You can’t contract a crop for a refinery that doesn’t exists, and you can’t build a refinery for a crop that you might not be able to contract.  So the whole chicken and the egg thing needs to be broken.”

Miller thinks the answer will be found in a partnership between Food and Fuel 4 the Forces and Green Circle North Carolina’s “Biodiesel for Schools” program.  That initiative was started in 2012.   In that program, restaurants in Pitt County either donate or sell their used cooking oil to Green Circle NC.  Co-owner Dean Price says the discarded oil is taken to Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro where it’s made into biodiesel to fuel school buses in Pitt County. 

“What we’re trying to do is keep the oil in the local community where maybe we can start a curriculum around teaching the kids how to make biofuel, eventually involving the farmers, where we can get a locally made vegetable oil, so really it’s the blueprint for a biofuels industry in eastern North Carolina.”

Price explains how it would be implemented at Camp Lejeune.

“Let’s take Jacksonville for example, there in Onslow County. We have talked to the superintendent of schools in Onslow County and feel very confident that we are going to start a program there soon so what we would do is go to the local restaurant owners in Jacksonville and Onslow County throughout the county and we would ask the restaurant owners to either donate or sell back their used cooking oil which is their garbage, and they in turn split the money with the schools from the proceeds of the oil and then from there, we would take the oil, convert it into biodiesel and run the equipment on Camp Lejeune with that oil.”

Price says the partnership benefits everyone… the restaurants would be recycling used cooking oil, and local schools and the military would benefit from clean, biodiesel fuel to power their equipment and vehicles.  But this would be the first baby steps in creating a biofuels industry in eastern North Carolina.  Food and Fuel 4 the Forces Program Manager George Miller says they hope to someday create a small scale biodiesel plant of their own in Jacksonville that would encourage local farmers to start growing energy crops.

“Much like our first delivery to the military, it’s demystifying the process.  We’re going to build a biodiesel plant based on feed stocks we can get now. We’re looking to try to put one on the base, that’s by no means a near term thing.”

Miller says once a biodiesel refinery is up and running, then a discussion could take place on whether any purpose grown crops would be of value for local farmers to grow. 

In the not-so-distant future, Food and Fuel 4 the Forces plans on promoting the idea of supporting local agriculture by holding a food conference where government entities, local food distributers and farmers can connect.  They’ve already started promoting “buy local” initiatives at Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune and New River.  A section at the base’s Commissary is dedicated exclusively to products from North Carolina.  And in the produce department, fruits and vegetables grown in the region have a label identifying what farm they came from.  As far as the “buy local” initiative being implemented at the mess hall, Miller says the menu board will probably highlight what foods are grown locally grown.

Food and Fuel 4 the Forces also have a vision to work with schools and teach students about the new energy economy that’s emerging in our country.

“They can go out on three field trips and see the entire process, they can go out in October and see the stuff, they can go out there in May when it’s harvested, and then they go in July and watch it being turned into biodiesel and they can on three field trips see the entire process.”

Miller says Craven County School Officials and Parrot Academy in Kinston have already expressed interest in having a biofuel refinery and training facility located on their campus.  Chris Bailey 252-514-6322.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.
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