"We were left with a choice: Are we going to build our own sugar mill, which is expensive, or come up with something else?" said William Pucheu, a farmer from Tranquility who is part of the cooperative.
The farmers flew twice to Europe to tour beet-based biofuel facilities. This month, Mendota Bioenergy LLC — the company formed by the cooperative — received a grant to build the demo plant, which will turn about 250 acres of beets into 285,000 gallons of ethanol per year.
If it's successful, a commercial bio-refinery would be built in Mendota, capable of producing 40 million gallons of ethanol annually. The bio-refinery, to debut in 2016, would put a total of about 80 beet growers and 35,000 acres back into production.
Both the demo plant and the commercial plant would run year-round and use beets grown by local farmers. The plants will also burn almond prunings and other wood waste to generate electricity for internal use and will convert some of those prunings into ethanol. They will process waste pulp from the beets to produce biomethane for compressed natural gas, and will produce fertilizer and recycle water for irrigation.
To area farmers, the beets are an ideal crop: they grow in poor and salty soils, and can use lesser-quality water, said Frank DelTesta, a third generation farmer who used to grow 150 acres of beets in Tranquility and is now growing some for the demo plant.
"Everybody liked growing beets, because they grew well here," DelTesta said. "My family has been growing beets for generations and not having that crop in our rotation has affected the yields for other crops like cotton."
And it's not just farmers who would benefit, said project manager Jim Tischer. The group's projections show the bio-refinery would create about 100 long-term jobs, as well as 150 seasonal agricultural jobs. It would lead to millions of dollars of local economic activity and generate taxes — a boon to Mendota, Tischer said, a town of 11,000 with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
The beet project comes at a time when the Midwest drought has reduced corn's availability, leading nearly three dozen corn ethanol plants to halt production. At the same time, there are plenty of stockpiles of ethanol, experts say, because Americans are driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars.
But the beet farmers say they aren't worried, because ethanol is cheaper than regular gasoline.
"As times goes by, customers will start buying more of it," Diener said, "because at the end of the day, it's a cost saving deal and others are motivated by the ethics of the green energy business."