Farm fields landscape

"Makin' It On the Farm" - Historical Success Stories

from Makin' It On the Farm

by Micki Nellis
photos by Alden Nellis

Albert Turner

Albert Turner, Selma, Alabama, and other members of the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative began making alcohol in early 1978. Theirs was the first fuel alcohol plant built in the United States in recent years. They had a small Office of Minority Business grant, crude equipment, and not even a shed over the still.

Albert Turner used corn, a wood fire, and produced 130 to 180 proof product. He had one 2,000 gallon fermentation tank that would produce 200 gallons of alcohol at best in 72 hours, in favorable weather. He had no extra heat for the fermentation, and in cold weather it slowed down. He had to distill one batch to empty the fermentation tank, then mix up another batch and wait 72 hours to distill again. He produced a maximum of 300 gallons a week, although the distillation column could have handled 30 gallons an hour.

The single column was 10" in diameter and 12' tall. Inside were circles of heavy gauge 1/8" mesh wire spaced 4" to 6" apart the length of the column.

Turner's still produced no waste material. The wood that fired the still was completely burned. The spent mash was fed to the hogs.

Turner said he could sell the alcohol for 65 cents a gallon as long as he could sell the protein byproduct, did not have to transport the alcohol and didn't have to pay a middleman to sell it.

Albert Turner envisioned an alcohol plant every 100 miles across the country.

"It would be the best thing that ever happened to agriculture - there would be no more surpluses," Turner said of farm alcohol. And then he said he was tired of hearing people compare the cost of alcohol with the cost of gasoline. "Any time you can raise the octane rating of fuel that much, you can't compare it with gasoline." Turner explained that alcohol cut down on pollution and stopped the flow of the dollar out of the country, could provide jobs in agriculture and take care of all surpluses. "I would rather pay more for alcohol than gasoline for those reasons alone," Turner said.

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Albert Turner and the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative built the first farm alcohol fuel plant in Selma, Alabama. This is their second plant - bigger and better. Photo by J. W. Watford, Valdosta, Georgia.

The alcohol was tested in about 200 vehicles, everything from farm trucks to Cadillacs. There were no problems. The Environmental Protection Agency said they wanted to do extensive testing before they okayed it.

Turner himself was pushed to the forefront as a proponent of alcohol or gasohol. He met with the Secretary of Agriculture, testified before congress, and was written about in many newspapers. Albert Turner carried the banner well. Turner drove his old John Deere G tractor to Washington D.C. to prove a point. After the oil companies and the auto manufacturers had testified against farm alcohol, saying that alcohol fuel was not feasible, that it would ruin cars, that an alcohol fuel would take years to perfect, and besides, it could be made cheaper from coal, Senator Birch Bayh, Indiana, asked Turner to testify. Turner described his plant and explained the costs of making alcohol. He said he had been burning straight alcohol in his pickup for two years and it had 120,000 miles on it. Then he turned to the experts in the audience and asked "When is it supposed to ruin it?"

After the first still had served its purpose, Turner started working on a bigger one. On June 27,1979, he was notified by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that he had been granted a regular distillers license to make and sell alcohol. His new plant was ready to be fired up. This still had two columns, 30" in diameter by 15' tall. He again used heavy gauge mesh discs, spaced 6" apart, this time with 1/4" size mesh. Turner said he has a unique system for attaching the mesh, which he did not reveal. Turner distilled by injecting steam into the 5,000 gallon fermentation vat and letting the vapor climb the column.

Archie and Alan Zeithamer

Archie and Alan Zeithamer, father and son from Alexandria, Minnesota, had been studying alcohol for four years. When Albert Turner and the cooperative got a small grant, the Zeithamers worked with them on that first plant. After they finished the work in Alabama, the Zeithamers went back to Minnesota and started building their own plant. They became the first farm alcohol plant in the United States to be granted a regular distillery permit on October 13, 1978. A few experimental permits, good only for two years, had been awarded before that time.

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The Archie and Alan Zeithamers, Alexandria, Minnesota, became the first farm families to obtain a commercial license to produce and sell alcohol. Here Diane, Alan's wife, makes an adjustment.

Alan Zeithamer said the whole family made a commitment to produce their own alcohol, burn it in their tractors, farm equipment, trucks, and heat their home and farm buildings with it. They used it straight, not mixed with gasoline, while others were still debating the feasibility of gasohol.

The Zeithamers built a 30' x 50' concrete block building, put together a distillation column out of used pipe, and set up used tanks for fermentation and storage. The total cost of the building and equipment, not counting labor, was about $10,000.

The Zeithamers, Archie and Arlene, Alan and Diane, began to make alcohol out of wheat, corn, and barley. Their cost of production, including labor, grain, denaturing, and all other expenses, was 500 [sic?] a gallon.

The Zeithamers fired their still with crop residues – corn stalks, sunflower stalks, corncobs, etc. They built a fire under the tank containing the mash, and the alcohol vapors went through a single distillation column that would produce 160 proof alcohol.

The size of the fermentation tanks was the limiting factor in their output. They made about 800 gallons a week, or 20,000 gallons during the Minnesota winter.

The Zeithamers put most of their farm tractors on straight alcohol with no changes. One old Allis Chalmers tractor quit running after two days. They tore into it and found the alcohol had caused a neoprene needle valve to swell. It was replaced with a steel valve and the problem was solved. (Alcohol will affect certain rubbers and plastics.)

Alan and Archie found that, contrary to what they had been told, engines did not have to be started on gasoline, then switched to alcohol. Only under certain conditions did a carburetor have to be preheated. Once, they wrapped heavy-duty kitchen foil around the carburetor and part of the exhaust manifold so the heat was transferred across. Most carburetors are heated by the way the manifold is constructed.

"Nobody wants to tell you alcohol will work in a diesel engine," said Alan, "but the old literature says it does." Despite an $80,000 University of Minnesota study just completed saying it didn't work, the Zeithamers set about making their diesel tractors run on 95% to 98% 160 proof alcohol with 2-5% vegetable oil. They have achieved good progress but not total success.

They fed the distillers grain to their 50 dairy cows as a protein supplement. After a little experimentation, they found the cows would no longer lick mineral blocks, because all their mineral needs were being met in their feed.

The Zeithamers further experimented on making alcohol from potatoes, sugar beets, and cassava roots (the source of tapioca.)

Meanwhile, the Zeithamers began conducting tours of their plant. Six thousand people visited the Zeithamers' plant the first six months it operated.

The Zeithamers don't sell plans of their plant because, as Alan said, "You have to understand what's happening."

Lance Crombie

Lance Crombie, Webster, Minnesota corn farmer who held a PhD in microbiology, won fame when he set up a small solar still in his yard and had it confiscated by the law.

Crombie's first still cost about $17 and consisted of a piece of plywood with strips around the edges to form a tray, lined with black cloth and covered with glass. The mash flowed over the black cloth inside the tray, was heated by the sun, and the alcohol condensed on the glass and trickled down to a collection spot. The first distillate could then be rechanneled into another similar chamber to purify it, and soon. Crombie estimated his cost of production at around 10 cents a gallon. He experimented and found his home furnace would run on the alcohol.

Crombie's story was picked up by the wire services, and he became a popular speaker at alternate energy conferences.

Crombie began planning larger solar stills that could be mounted on rooftops, but would cost a lot more money.

Dr. Paul Middaugh

In Brookings at South Dakota State University, Dr. Paul Middaugh and his graduate students built an alcohol plant out of used, scrap and make-do equipment. They produced their own enzymes in an old cheese tank, and used a 1,000 gallon bean oil tank for fermentation.

Dr. Middaugh introduced some new distillation ideas. By using two columns instead of one and making each shorter than the customary one tall column, his columns were short enough to be placed in a normal sized barn. Dr. Middaugh injected live steam into the bottom of the first column while pumping the mash in at the top of the first column. This did away with having to build a fire under the mash. The steam stripped the alcohol out of the mash as the mash made its way to the bottom of the column, slowed down by perforated plates.

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Dr. Paul Middaugh and his graduate students from South Dakota State University built this farm alcohol plant and operated it at an exhibit on the mall in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Middaugh's still produced 20 gallons an hour of 190 proof alcohol, the highest proof obtained from a farm plant at that time.

The first column contained downcomer pipes to allow the mash to get to the bottom of the first column. The perforated plates allowed the steam to penetrate the mash from below as the mash lay on the perforated plates during its slow descent through the downcomer pipes. The vapors rose to the top of the first column, about half alcohol and half water vapor, and went through a pipe to the bottom of the second column. Here they rose through more perforated plates and exited the top of the second column, went through a condenser and emerged as 190 proof alcohol.

A pump returned the water that fell to the bottom of the second column to the top of the first column. An alcohol reflux pump returned part of the cooled alcohol to the top plate of the second column to control the temperature. The temperature of the top plate of the second column, in turn, controlled the proof of the final product.

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Dr. Paul Middaugh unceremoniously stirs a batch if fermenting brew in Washington, D.C. for the column in the background.

Dr. Middaugh's plant was financed with not one penny of government money. The Rural Electric Association gave $10,000 and the rest came from 50 cent donations from the community.

When Dr. Middaugh began to speak at alternate energy meetings, he was swamped with questions. He was asked to display his unit in Washington D.C. during the Appropriate Community Technology fair in April, 1979, and he was asked to chair the alcohol section of the Biomass Conference at Purdue University in May, 1979.

Dr.Middaugh and his graduate students built a second ethanol plant in three weeks to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. - while others talked of lead times of two to three years.

Many farmers went to Washington D.C. and to Brookings, South Dakota, to see Dr. Middaugh's still. The still left D.C. and headed for Colby, Kansas, for another demonstration set up by farmers. Alcohol fever had spread like wildfire!

Dr. Middaugh was a well-qualified champion of farm alcohol. He has had 30 years of industrial experience, was a pilot plant director for Grain Processing Corporation at Muscatine, Iowa, and worked for seven years with enzyme conversion of starch and sugar.

The Schroders

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Derral Schroder, center, explains to other farmers how the alcohol plant works

Gene Schroder, a farmer from Campo, Colorado, had been following the farm alcohol possibilities for over a year. The American Agriculture Movement, which Gene helped start, had made farm alcohol a priority in September of 1978.

Gene was disgusted with farm prices and the dying agricultural economy in general. He decided to take the bull by the horns and do something positive on his own farm.

Bill Schroder, Gene's brother, went to a National Gasohol meeting in Denver in late March, 1979. Most of the speakers were from companies that built huge alcohol plants, and they insisted that small farm plants were not economical. When Dr. Paul Middaugh rose to say a farm still could be operating in three weeks that would make a farm or a community self-sufficient, he was swamped with questions from farmers who had just heard what they wanted to hear.

Gene saw Dr. Middaugh's still at Colby, Kansas in May, and the Schroder brothers and their father, Derral, set to work building an alcohol plant in an old barn. They did not have all the information they needed, but set out to make it work as they went.

On June 16, 1979, the Schroders held an open house to demonstrate their farm alcohol plant. They could run off 25 gallons per hour of 190 proof ethanol. All three being mechanically inclined, they had added ingenious touches of their own. This still, like Alan and Archie Zeithamer's plant, showed how a farmer could make his own fuel out of his own crops on his own farm.

The Schroders put hinges on the bottom of their columns so they could be laid down and the plates pulled out with a tractor if they need cleaning. The hinges take the place of the clean-out ports up and down the columns.

We have used this still to describe in detail exactly how to make ethanol. There is nothing theoretical about any of the process - it works. The Schroders kept improving their plant, and ended up being part of a commercial operation, Baca Food and Fuel.

The description of this process is not meant to be the final word on making alcohol. Far from it - it is just a beginning. If farmers understand the process and start building their own, the body of knowledge will grow by leaps and bounds in a short time. Many people will have better ideas and put them to work. Everyone will benefit from what others have learned.

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Dr. Eugene Schroder today is still a farm activist.




Makin' It On The Farm:
Alcohol Fuel is the
Road to Independence
Electronic Edition
ISBN 1-885534-14-0
Original Edition Copyright © 1979 by Micki Stout Nellis
Revised Edition Copyright © 2000 by Micki Stout Nellis
Electronic Formatting and Presentation
copyright ©2000 by Micki Stout Nellis
All Rights Reserved
(Hardcopy edition Library of Congress
Catalog Card Number 79-66553)

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