County will lease equipment in failing biofuels venture

A farming experiment that was supposed to encourage alternative-fuel crops continues to lose money for Snohomish County.

While debate is bound to continue over the future of the county’s seed crusher and grain dryer at the Cathcart facility, south of Snohomish, elected leaders did manage to solve one short-term problem Wednesday. They approved a contract with a long-established Snohomish Valley farmer who is willing to operate the equipment.

Until now, the county had been unable to interest any private parties in the venture. County employees had been running the equipment, intended for use by local farmers, since March 2010.

The new agreement is forecast to generate $8,000 for the county through the end of next year — a pittance compared with the nearly $1.4 million in public money invested in the project so far.

The original idea was to produce biofuel from crops such as canola, and to use some of the product to run county vehicles.

Even past supporters of the venture now concede the time may be approaching to pull the plug.

“This is obviously not working out, but having a private operator is definitely better,” County Councilman Dave Somers said.

Since the equipment’s already in place, it’s better to put it to use, Somers said. Eventually, the county might want to consider selling it as surplus.

Under the new agreement, Dan Bartelheimer’s Sno-Valley Farms will pay the county $1 per year, equipment fees of 50 cents per ton of grain dried and $10 per ton of grain crushed after the total exceeds 50 tons. Sno-Valley Farms is responsible for maintenance costs.

That arrangement is planned to last through the end of 2013.

Bartelheimer has the know-how and agriculture connections to put the equipment to better use than the county employees could, county solid waste director Matt Zybas said.

“It’s a local farmer in the community and he also has many contacts in the farming community,” Zybas said.

The County Council voted 4-1 in favor of the contract.

Councilman John Koster, a former dairy farmer who’s been critical of the venture from the outset, cast the “no” vote.

“Wouldn’t you like to have the government invest all that money and lease it to you for a dollar?” Koster said. “I don’t see how this isn’t a gifting of public funds.”

Councilman Dave Gossett said he supported the Sno-Valley contract because it makes the most efficient use of the county’s equipment. Gossett said he still understands the project’s initial appeal of spurring interest in new crops that could be processed into environmentally friendly fuels that the county could use in fleet vehicles.

Now, he believes it’s time to re-evaluate.

“As a vision, it really worked, but in reality, it isn’t working out that way,” Gossett said.

Last week, the county’s Solid Waste Division sent the County Council a breakdown of the project’s costs.

The county launched its biofuels initiative in 2005. By 2008, the county received $844,000 in state and federal grants for the grain facility at Cathcart — $344,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy and $500,000 from the state government agency now known as the Department of Commerce. Another $523,000 came from the county solid-waste budget.

“We’re in it for a lot of dough,” Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said.

Since 2008, the facility has dried 1,790 tons of grain, including barley, canola, mustard and wheat.

The facility includes six holding silos that can store more than 300 tons of wet or dry grain. The dryer can process 15 tons of grain per hour and runs off methane from the old Cathcart landfill. The canola seed crusher can handle about 24 tons per day.

Bartelheimer’s family has been farming in the area since the early 1900s. He said record-high prices for canola make him optimistic he’ll be able to put the county facility to good use in the coming months.

“We’ve historically been the major grower of canola in the area, and it fits our program,” he said.

Canola now commands about 30 cents per pound, he said, about three times the price from a few years ago.

Canola doesn’t normally give farmers much return on their investment, he said. But it’s inexpensive to plant and helps with crop rotation. This year, he planted more than usual because of the late spring.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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