The Zeithamer Family: Alcohol Fuel at Work

The high cost of conventional petroleum fuels have led one Minnesota farming family to make their own alcohol fuel.


| September/October 1979



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Alan Zeithamer with a tractor that runs on alcohol fuel.


PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

It would be hard to imagine any group of people who are harder hit by fuel shortages than are this nation's farmers. And, of course, when our agriculturists—who supply so much of the world's "bread and butter"—suffer, millions of other folks share the effects in the form of high priced (or even completely unavailable) food.

But one particular granger family—the Zeithamers of Alexandria, Minnesota—is simply not about to take any "gasoline drought"—real or contrived—sitting down. These folks are making their own alcohol fuel for about half the price of the commercial gasoline it's replacing.

It's Plainly Practical

The Zeithamer dairy farm—a 50-cow, 500-acre spread—requires more than 10,000 gallons of combustible petroleum to get through each year. Increasing fuel costs were enough of a burden for the Minnesotans to contend with, but a scarcity of the precious liquid could have resulted in disaster—one reason why Archie (the senior Zeithamer) and his son Alan decided to convert to alcohol fuel, aka "farmer's fuel."

"It's nothing new, you know," Archie says. "Farmers were burning straight alcohol in their tractors years ago when they couldn't get anything else. There's no doubt it works. And no one else is better equipped to handle alcohol production than are farmers. We have the raw materials right on hand, and we're far more flexible than any large commercial distilleries could be because we can make fuel out of whatever surplus crop we have available. Furthermore, we're producing our ethanol right here where it's going to be used. We aren't burning up half our product trying to deliver it to some distribution point located three or more states away."

The cost factor is another reason why Archie feels that on-farm distilleries are the most practical. The Zeithamers' total production plant investment was only $10,000—not an overwhelming sum for a farm the size of theirs—and the operating expenses are also minimal, since the plant is usually fired with wood scraps. The Minnesota farmers can make 500 gallons of alcohol fuel per week, which—with all expenses except labor considered—will cost them only 50¢ a gallon!

How the Alcohol Operation Works

The Zeithamers use a 4,000-gallon oil tank—mounted over a masonry firebox—as their cooking and fermenting vat, and they've equipped the container with an electrically powered agitator that constantly stirs the mash mixture while it's being heated (thereby eliminating the need to "babysit" the process in the cooking stage). The father and son team shell and grind their corn to a coarse consistency, then add it to the tank, with water, in a ratio of about 28 gallons of liquid to each bushel of corn. Yeast and enzymes are also added during the process, and the mixture is allowed to cool and ferment for about three days. The resultant "still beer" (it contains about 7 1/2 to 10% alcohol) is strained through a filter and temporarily stored in a 10,000-gallon tank which is set, underground, beneath their fermentation vat.





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