Biodiesel made on UK farms will be powering many more vehicles within the next 18 months.

That is the confident prediction of former Farmers Weekly barometer farmer Andrew Martin who sees the exercise as an ideal opportunity to add value to an otherwise mere commodity product – oilseed rape.

Recently the recipient of a 20,000 DEFRA grant via the South East England Development Agency to explore the possibility, Mr Martin believes the latest energy price hikes make on-farm production of the “green” fuel increasingly viable.

“I’m sure that if we as farmers don’t do it, someone else will. We have the will, the resources and the raw material.

“The oil price is the biggest driver. We’ve seen some frighteningly steep increases and it’s difficult to see fuel becoming cheap again.”

At a yield of 3.5t/ha (28cwt/ace) his 204ha (504 acres) of oilseed rape at Romney Marsh Farms in Kent could produce about 250,000 litres of biodiesel, he calculates.

Technically the process of converting rapeseed to fuel is well understood, he points out.

“And with the price of oil where it is it’s starting to make fairly good sense.

The kit is there.

“Small moderately priced crushing plant and esterification equipment is becoming more available.”

Most European engine manufacturers accept biodiesel as a fuel provided it meets the EU’s EN14214 quality standard.

However some others, notably Japanese makers, may not stand by their warranties if biodiesel is used, he notes.

On arable-only farms, making biodiesel would be a welcome productive winter activity.

At a different level several farms could get together to benefit from economies of scale, says Mr Martin.

He is already exploring how co-operation with other south-eastern growers, through a Rural Pathfinder project, could help test the feasibility of using biodiesel in some Hants County Council vehicles.

Beyond that there is scope for some really large-scale plants, he believes.

“There are a lot of venture capitalists out there getting interested.”

But even with the latest shift in economic viability the government’s incentives for biodiesel remained inadequate until last week’s adoption of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation.

Strategically, against the background of dwindling North Sea oil supplies, it should do more and cut “green” fuel duty further, he urges.

“We have a 20p/litre rebate off the 47.1p/litre fuel duty, but we could do with more.

It’s certainly not as good as some other countries like Austria and Germany get.”

His recent visit to the Agritechnica show, where a whole hall was devoted to renewable energy, shows how far ahead the rest of Europe is.

“We’re so far behind it’s embarrassing.”

He welcomes the ReTFO which requires 5% of road transport fuel to be from renewable resources by 2010 by volume.

“It should kick start the biofuel industry.

Now farmers should be getting out there and finding customers so they can start building their own plants to supply this newly created market.”

The key aim of his SEEDA-funded studies is to give biodiesel pioneers confidence.

“I’m trying not to re-invent the wheel.

But I want to engage with organisations like the Environment Agency, DTI and the Inland Revenue to see what obstacles remain, and at least highlight them so farmers can feel confident they have a fighting chance of success.”

For full analysis of last week’s Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation announcement, see News, p18.