For Joshua Leidhecker, the canola seed is a "full circle" agricultural product that can support local farmers, the restaurant industry, and energy conservation - and his business.
Leidhecker is founder of Susquehanna Mills, a company that contracts with local farmers to grow canola, then crushes the plant's seeds at the company's Montoursville facility to make a high-grade salad and deep frying oil for local restaurateurs.
The company then takes the spent deep frying oil from the restaurants, makes it into biodiesel fuel and sells that fuel back to farmers for use in their agricultural equipment.
Josh Leidhecker inspects a vial of canola oil manufactured at his processing plant in Montoursville. Leidhecker said canola is a “full circle” agricultural product that can be locally grown, processed and then sold to restaurants. It then can be recycled and made into biodiesel fuel that can be used by the farmers for agricultural purposes, he said.
Leidhecker said his initial intention was not to make food-grade oil, but biodiesel for his own use.
He was in the construction business with his father Keith Leidhecker when he got the idea that making biodiesel could take a bite out of increasing cost of providing fuel for company vehicles.
"In 2005 we were doing quite a bit of construction work and using a lot of diesel fuel in company vehicles. We were spending about $150,000 on diesel fuel a year at that time," Leidhecker said. "We weren't even thinking about doing food oil. We were only interested in fuel.
"My sales assistant found something on the Internet about this biodiesel thing and I said, 'Order it,'" he said. "We invested money just to try the thing - invested in equipment at our shop on Radio Club Road and began making biodiesel out of waste cooking oil from area restaurants."
The year after starting the facility, fuel costs for the construction company - minus start-up costs for the fuel-making equipment - were reduced to $20,000, he said.
But when the bottom fell out of the construction industry, Leidhecker had to rethink his business model to come up with something that was recession proof and sustainable.
"We're making biodiesel and it's great, then the market falls apart and all of a sudden we're not making as much money in construction," Leidhecker said. "I felt strongly the vegetable oil thing could be something that could be sustained long-term regardless of the economy.
"There are multiple uses of vegetable oil. It can go to biodiesel, it can be used in frying oil, it can be used in industrial applications and it can be used in agriculture feed applications," he said. "It made sense to develop this business further."
Leidhecker moved his biodiesel facility to Winchester, Va., then bought the storage bins and crushing and refining equipment needed to manufacture food-grade canola oil.
He contracts with farmers, many of them local, to grow canola - a member of the mustard family that is harvested in early August. The canola is brought to Leidhecker's Montoursville facility where it is stored in outdoor storage bins with the capacity to hold up to 13,000 bushels.
The canola seeds are cleaned and dried to be readied for crushing. The seeds are moved by conveyor system from storage to a vibrating screen that separates impurities from the seed.
Once cleaned, the seed is conveyed to custom-built hoppers from which it drops into crushers that separate the oil from the seed. The oil runs into a stainless steel holding tank and the biproduct - called "press meal" - is saved and used as a high-protein feed ingredient for the dairy industry, Leidhecker said.
"The press runs 24-7. It runs constantly," Leidhecker said. "When we are running at full capacity, we can crush 1,000 bushels a week."
The oil is filtered and sent to a holding tank where it goes through a physical refining process before being sent to a storage tank to await packaging in 35-pound containers for restaurant use or smaller bottles for home use.
No chemicals are used in the oil production process, Leidhecker said.
The company's emphasis is on local growers and local consumers, Leidhecker said.
The company sells frying oil to about 35 local restaurants, Leidhecker said. The goal is to buy canola seed from farmers living within a 50-mile radius of the Montoursville facility and sell the oil made from the seed to restaurants within that area.
"I'd like to recycle that used oil from restaurants into clean-burning biodiesel and make that available to my growers within that 50-mile radius as agricultural fuel," Leidhecker said.
Although retail customers can buy small bottles of the oil at the Montoursville facility, they also can buy it at the Williamsport Outdoor Growers Market, which is held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday in the parking lot along Little League Boulevard between Hepburn and Pine streets. That is where you will find Leidhecker making fresh cut French fries and other items using deep fryers stocked with his canola oil.
Leidhecker said his presence at the market less a money making venture than a way of getting the word out about his product. If people like his oil, maybe they'll pass that along to their favorite restaurants, he said.
Leidhecker's company provides local restaurants with full-service deep fryer cleaning services.
He also will provide consulting services to anyone wishing to duplicate his oil-making process, he said. In doing so, everyone benefits, he said.
"I can build it for other companies," he said. "This model is repeatable anywhere. It's what we have to do to support and build our agricultural system back up."