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Running A French Farm On Rapeseed Oil And Manure

Durand's latest plan is to build an electricity generator powered by methane gas from a large manure heap steaming in one corner of the farmyard.
by Simon Coss
La Meilleraye De Bretagne, France (AFP) Feb 28, 2006
French farmer Daniel Durand lives in a long, low, traditional farmhouse, a picture postcard scene worthy of any tourist office advertisement extolling the beauty of Brittany. But behind the bucolic facade, Durand's 40 hectare small-holding farm is unlike many others in France as up to 80 percent of the energy he needs comes from sustainable, environmentally-sound methods.

Durand's tractor and other farm machinery run predominantly on sunflower or rapeseed oil extracted from home-grown crops, he heats his house using wood chips from hedges and trees, and his animals eat leftover oilseed husks.

Most of the farm's electricity is supplied by solar panels installed on the roof, although he can patch into the national electricity grid when necessary, and he even cuts his grass using a solar-powered lawnmower.

"Renewable energies are complementary," he explained. "If at any time there is one that doesn't work, then you should use another. If you try to rely on a single energy source, you're going to be disappointed."

Durand's latest plan is to build an electricity generator powered by methane gas from a large manure heap steaming in one corner of the farmyard.

"I'll be going off on a training weekend to learn about that soon," he said. "The technology already exists so I don't think it will be too difficult to build."

Durand certainly doesn't seem to have sacrificed any creature comforts in his drive to use renewable energy. The farmhouse he lives in with his wife and two children is warm and well-lit. The sitting room has a comfortable, lived-in feel and boasts a television in one corner and a computer in another.

"The most environmentally sound energy you can have is the energy you don't use in the first place," he said. "What we try to do here is save as much energy as we can. That way, what we do use goes as far as possible."

Durand stressed he is no empty-headed idealist when it comes to renewable energy, insisting he is running a serious, working farm and that all of the alternative energy sources he uses make sound economic sense.

"When we first arrived here 25 years ago a lot of people were sceptical about what we were doing and didn't think we'd last very long. Well we're still here," he said.

Their campaign has also earned them grudging respect in the local community.

"People are much more willing to discuss environmentally friendly farming techniques with us now, because they can see that what we are doing works."

But the growing popularity of ecologically aware agriculture is, paradoxically, starting to throw up some serious potential dilemmas. And the issue of alternative fuels -- like the sunflower and rapeseed oils that Durand uses to power his tractors -- is emerging as a particularly vexed problem.

Durand would like to see the authorities both in France and at the European Union (EU) institutions in Brussels giving greater encouragement to the kind of small-scale, local production of 'biofuels' that he practices.

At present he is allowed to produce enough fuel for his professional needs, but cannot sell his oils or run his car on them for non-farm business.

He argues he and his neighbouring farmers should be able to pool their production and help meet a greater percentage of local fuel needs.

Durand and many other environmental activists are concerned that the EU seems to be preparing to import huge quantities of vegetable oils from other countries to transform into biofuels. Malaysian palm oil and and soya oil from the US and South America have been raised as possibilities.

Green activists say importing would counteract any environmental benefits, as such oils would almost certainly be transported to Europe in fossil-fuel burning tanker ships, and then distributed around the continent in diesel tankers.

Concerns have also been raised about the way oils for European biofuels might be produced in non-EU countries. Environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth said in a 2005 report, for example, that 87 percent of deforestation in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000 was caused by the creation of palm plantations for the food oil industry.

But the Brussels-based European Commission has already made it clear it favours imports. In a major "Biomass Action Plan" unveiled last year it argued that it would be "neither possible nor desirable" for the EU to try to be self sufficient in biofuels.

"Existing trade arrangements and World Trade Organisation commitments do not permit the EU to close the door to imports of biofuels or biofuel raw materials," it added.

The commission insists however that it is serious about environmental protection.

"We are currently looking into the possibility of requiring any biofuel imports to be accompanied by a certificate of origin that confirms shipments were not produced in an environmentally damaging way," the institution's spokesman for energy policy, Ferran Tarradellas i Espuny, told AFP.

But such arguments cut little ice with Durand. "It's crazy to ship soya half way around the world in tankers running on fossil fuels, just to turn it into biodiesel here," he said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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