Growing & Winemaking


Grapegrowers Switch to Biodiesel

June 2011
by Paul Franson

Many grapegrowers and wineries are interested in using biodiesel fuel in their tractors and other farm equipment due to concern for the environment. Tractor manufacturers have responded to them and many other sectors of farming by modifying equipment to handle fuel that contains between 5% and 100% biodiesel.

California vineyard companies as big as Beckstoffer and as small as Robert Sinskey are actively using biodiesel in different percentages. They told Wines & Vines that they enjoy the non-toxic nature of the fuel, which is biodegradable, and appreciate the reduced emissions for their workers, although they report that using biodiesel does require extra work and modifications.

The attractions of biodiesel are many: Biodiesel is a renewable fuel made from agricultural resources such as soybeans or rapeseeds, recycled food oil or even tallow (rendered fat).

John Deere’s literature summarizes many of the positives: “Biodiesel is biodegradable and nontoxic, and it results in improved lubricity, zero aromatics and minimal sulfur. In addition, biodiesel is a renewable energy alternative that reduces dependence on petroleum, has high cetane content, produces less visible smoke and lowers engine particulate matter, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions. Biodiesel also has a very favorable energy balance of 3.2 to 1.” (Energy balance is the difference between the energy produced by 1kg of fuel and the energy necessary to produce it.)

Yet Deere ships its diesel-powered equipment from the factory with B5—only 5% biodiesel—and recommends no more than B20 even with an additive. Kubota Tractor Corp. also sanctions the use of B20 biodiesel fuels in selected Kubota diesel-powered products.

John Deere's warnings

John Deere is clearly wary of biodiesel fuel in its equipment and warns of many possible downsides, adding that the risk of problems occurring in the engine increases as the level of biodiesel blend increases. The manufacturer doesn't recommend the use of raw pressed vegetable oils as fuel in diesel engines pending studies of their impact.

John Deere states that the following must be considered when using biodiesel blends up to B20:
• Expect a 2% reduction in power and a 3% reduction in fuel economy when using B20;
• Cold weather causes flow degradation;
• Stability and storage issues (moisture absorption, oxidation, microbial growth);
• Possible filter restriction and plugging (usually a problem when first switching to biodiesel on used engines);
• Possible fuel leakage through seals and hoses;
• Possible reduction of service life of engine components. It further warns that in addition to the factors above, the following must also be considered when using biodiesel blends above B20:
• Expect up to a 12% reduction in power and an 18% reduction in fuel economy when using B100;
• Possible coking and/or blocked injector nozzles, resulting in power loss and engine misfire if John Deere-approved fuel conditioners containing detergent/dispersant additives are not used;
• Possible crankcase oil dilution, requiring more frequent oil changes. Visit for more information on biofuels and the proper way to use them in John Deere engines.
By contrast, New Holland approves B100 biodiesel for use in its T4000F and T4000V narrow tractors and TK crawlers, both widely used in vineyards.

John Deere claims that it was one of the first off-highway engine manufacturers to factory-fill biodiesel in North America, and it approved B5 biodiesel in 2001. Since then, John Deere has continued to conduct biodiesel research and has performed lab and field tests using biodiesel fuel. It also has developed a fuel conditioner that is recommended when using lower biodiesel blends and required when using B20 blends and above.

Nearly 80% of New Holland-branded products with diesel engines are now available to operate on B100 biodiesel. New Holland also has asked other suppliers of diesel engines used in its products to test and approve higher levels of biodiesel.

In addition to extensive testing and development within the company, New Holland has been involved in an ongoing research project in collaboration with Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences to put B100 to the test under real-life conditions.

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences is operating new, unmodified New Holland tractors on B100 biodiesel on its 1,500-acre research farm to find out what diesel equipment owners can expect to experience when they use B100. After nearly two years of use, the tractors have performed with no adverse effects in performance or maintenance, according to Glen Cauffman, the university’s manager of farm operations and services.

Source and maintenance
The tractor makers recommend that the biodiesel fuel meets requirements of ASTM D6751 or the equivalent and strongly encourage users to buy biodiesel blends from a BQ-9000 certified marketer and to source from a BQ-9000 accredited producer. Certified marketers and accredited producers can be found at

John Deere makes some specific suggestions about maintenance procedures on equipment that uses biodiesel:

• Drain and clean fuel storage tank before and after using biodiesel.

• Install tank caps and covers properly to prevent water from entering.

• Clean any spills on painted surfaces immediately if using B20 or higher blends.

• Replace fuel filter more often initially.

• Check engine oil sump level daily prior to starting the equipment.

• Use regular diesel fuel for standby generators, occasional/seasonal applications and extended periods of storage or idle of the vehicle.

• John Deere-approved fuel conditioners containing detergent/dispersant additives are required when using blends of B20 or greater and are recommended when using lower biodiesel blends.

John Deere also says that due to the solvent nature of biodiesel and the potential for “cleaning” of the vehicle fuel tank and lines, new fuel filters should be installed when biodiesel is introduced to older or used engines. For the first two changes, the fuel filter life will be half the standard. When using biodiesel blends greater than B20, which John Deere doesn’t recommend, oil service intervals should be cut in half.

Deere also says that biodiesel blends up to B20 should be used within 90 days of the date of biodiesel manufacture, since biodiesel is naturally biodegradable. Biodiesel blends from B21 to B100 should be used within 45 days of the date of biodiesel manufacture.

In addition to prompt usage, storage tanks should be protected from direct sun, frost and other extremes. They should also be kept as full as possible to minimize condensation since water accelerates microbial growth. To improve storage and extend fuel life, John Deere recommends the use of a fuel stabilizer.

Long Meadow uses B100
Despite warnings from some tractor makers, many grapegrowers and wineries are using biodiesel fuels in their tractors and off-road trucks. One of the most ambitious is Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena, Calif., which has used B100 for many years in all of its tractors and off-road trucks (the fuel is tax-exempt for farm use, of course). Like many other Napa Valley wineries, Long Meadow gets its biodiesel delivered by Napa Valley Petroleum Co.

In the early days, biofuel came from recycled food oil. Long Meadow Ranch owner Ted Hall says that on some days it smelled like Chinese food, some days like donuts. Now it comes from biomass, typically soybeans or rapeseeds (mustard).

He says that the ranch had problems early on because the oils weren’t consistent and sometimes clogged filters when it was cool—even under 40°F. “It’s gotten better and better,” he says, attributing the improvement partly to different oil blends.

Hall does say that his crew had to replace more hoses and gaskets than with petroleum diesel, but he likes the fact that if they spill it, it’s not considered hazardous material; they’ve even added it to compost piles.

The winery also makes olive oil, but considering its value, Hall hasn’t tried it as a fuel. He donates the used cooking oil from his restaurant to a biodiesel project at St. Helena High School.

Robert Sinskey uses B80
Debby Zygielbaum tried B100 in the tractors at Robert Sinskey Vineyards, but she has backed off to B80 partly because B80 is such a good solvent and she believes it still reduces emissions. She says biodiesel won’t work in some old equipment. “It doesn’t burn as hot as petroleum fuel,” she says.

She liked a B99 with an additive for cool weather but had some problems with the supplier. Now she buys primarily from Golden Gate Biofuels. She uses tallow-based biofuel in the summer, soy-based in the winter.

Zygielbaum even tried brewing her own biodiesel, but the process took too much time and attention, and it was inadequate for her needs of 5,000 or more gallons per year. The 50-gallon refiner combined waste food oil, methanol, sulfuric acid and lye, and it produced 40 gallons of biodiesel. “It also produces 7 pounds of glycerin, and that was a concern.”

“If I had 10 acres to tend, I’d definitely use the brewer,” she said.

Beckstoffer blends its own
Beckstoffer Vineyards, which farms about 3,000 acres in California’s Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, uses a mix of 50/50 biodiesel and petroleum diesel fuels. Beckstoffer employees blend the two, because the company’s supplier can’t legally blend fuels.

Shop manager Paul Rossopoulos says Beckstoffer has used the mix for five years. “It has some drawbacks,” he admitted. “The shelf life is shorter than regular diesel, and it doesn’t work in cold weather.” They don’t use it in equipment involved in frost protection, for example.

Like Hall, Rossopoulos has run into problems with gaskets and seals, and he finds that problems worsen as the equipment sits. Fortunately, newer replacements made of neoprene are more resistant to the solvent properties of biodiesel. “Natural rubber is very susceptible to biodiesel.”

He stores the diesel in above-ground tanks since glycerin is formed as it sits. They drain the gel-like substance and use it as a solvent.

Rossopoulos has found that the cost of the fuel doesn’t necessarily track that of petroleum, and he has averaged about 50% higher costs for the biodiesel.

Trefethen likes B20
At Trefethen Vineyards, manager Jon Ruel has experimented with blends up to 100%, but Trefethen is now using B20 for all of its tractors and some trucks. “It seems to be a good balance of the benefits and liabilities.”

He initially had problems with clogged filters but says that fuel quality has improved. He also reports less power at high loads but likes the absence of particulate matter—a benefit for workers.

Ruel has found the price varies significantly; he’s paid as much as $1.50 more per gallon for biodiesel than petroleum diesel, and 75 cents less. “You could monitor the prices and buy what’s less expensive,” he notes.

One winery contacted for this article is famed for its environmental practices. The winery reports that it has experimented with biofuels and has had some mechanical issues with equipment as a result. Representatives from the winery were not prepared to speak one way or the other on the topic as they continued to explore alternatives. 

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