From Consumer to Producer…
Whether they be positive or negative, sometimes it takes a bit of reflection to fully digest and recount the experiences in life we consider important events. I consider my time as an intern at Piedmont Biofuels one of the more positive events in my life, as well as one that strongly influenced and changed my perspective of the place I call home; Chatham County, North Carolina.
I say this because I grew up here in Chatham County during a time when the word sustainability was not part of the local vocabulary. Back then, Chatham County was a strange place, at least for me.
My parents were part of the “back to the land” movement of the 1970’s. My father is an artist and most of my early childhood was spent on the road en route to the next art show or festival. When we were at home, I remember him working the land by day and the canvas by night.
“Home” off the road was a modest 4 acre spread that my father, an artist in his then late 20’s could actually afford. Our spread happened to be in Chatham County, NC.
Dad paid the mortgage selling his art while we only ate what came from the backyard. Many of our family friends had similar lifestyles and some grew more in their backyards than just vegetables.
Looking back, growing up in that environment was wonderful but it was also a bit tough from a social standpoint, especially in regards to public education. I was raised vegetarian. We didn’t attend the local baptist church, instead we listened to Bob Marley on Sunday mornings while we snapped mountains of beans.
I didn’t hunt or fish and I wasn’t much into “muddin”, country music, or priming tobacco with the other boys. To say I didn’t exactly fit in with Chatham County culture as a kid would be an understatement. My measuring stick of success after high school was simply to get as far away as I possibly could from Pittsboro, North Carolina.
Within a year of graduating, that’s exactly what I did. I spent the next ten years leading a rather nomadic lifestyle, traveling all over the country but spending the majority of that time between Portland, OR and Olympia, WA.
In 2005, I moved back to NC from the Pacific Northwest. I settled over in Carrboro and immediately began searching out old friends and exploring the surrounding areas again.
Getting my finger back on the pulse of NC was interesting after having been gone for so long. In particular it seemed Chatham County had changed quite a bit since the 80’s and early ’90s …and it was the buzz. At first I didn’t believe a word of it and just shook my head.
Then one day in 2006, I was out on a drive looking for photographic opportunities and I found myself behind an old diesel VW with bumper sticker that read “This car runs on Biodiesel made from recycled vegetable oil.”
I was instantly intrigued for several reasons. I liked wrenching on my old VW busses, and although I had no experience with diesels, I was a VW nut. I was also a recycling nut, and suddenly …I had to know more about this “Biodiesel” stuff.
So I left the camera in the trunk and raced home to consult the all-knowing Google.
That’s when I discovered Piedmont Biofuels Co-op …located in Pittsboro of all places.
“Ok, maybe there is actually something good going on out in Chatham”, I thought to myself.
A few months later I finally found an old VW diesel for my paltry budget of $1500.00. I jumped on a plane to D.C., met the seller, and drove the car back to Carrboro eager to burn the petrol out of the tank, join the co-op, and fill up my first tank full of Biodiesel.
I was bursting with excitement. I was to finally be able to run my car on locally made fuel! This led down the rabbit hole though. At the end of the day I have always had a DIY attitude and it wasn’t long before I wanted to try my hand at making some Biodiesel myself.
A few years ago there was “Tuesday Night Fuel Making” at the old co-op in Moncure. The best part was they had an open invitation for members to come learn the process and help make some fuel.
I decided to go check it out and I loved what I saw. I went as often as I could get out of work early on a Tuesday afternoon and got an education in making Biodiesel. Around the same time, my wife (then girlfriend) came with me on a tour of “Industrial” which was where Piedmont made fuel on a commercial scale.
On our way home after tour that afternoon, I looked at her and said “THIS is what I want to do and I need to find a way to do it”. She seemed excited by this. Looking back, this may be why she married me.
I learned the game of Chess at an early age and I still enjoy it to this day. I think even a basic understanding of the game is a useful tool for life in general, especially as a path to achieving goals. To fulfill my goal of making Biodiesel for a living, I knew I would have to move my pieces carefully as there were only so many “biodiesel producer” positions available in NC.
The first move was entering in the Biofuels Program at Central Carolina Community College. That’s when I met my instructor, mentor, and now good friend Bob Armantrout. Even if nothing else came of my return to school, I met Bob and that would have been good enough for me.
I hoped that getting the right classes under my belt might possibly lead to a Production Internship at Piedmont. If said Internship was granted, then the next move would be to absorb as much and as quickly as possible and start spinning some gallons. Hopefully, if I worked hard enough in that capacity maybe a position would open up eventually. My fingers were crossed.
Sure enough, in November of 2010 after a few weeks of pestering him, Jeremy finally relented and offered me an Internship. I was crawling out of my skin; excited and nervous at the same time. Excited because I could finally learn and help make Biodiesel on a large scale. Nervous because I would be meeting some folks whom I held great admiration over the previous 4 years although had never met face to face.
I had read Lyle’s Biodiesel Power book a couple of years earlier and it left a mark. I knew Rachel had taught automotive mechanics at CCCC prior to co-founding Piedmont. I sensed she was equally proficient with a graduated cylinder in one hand as she was with a wrench in the other.
I had watched interviews with Leif and knew the design and layout of the plant largely came from his fantastically manscaped head.
So there I was with a backstage pass at my favorite band’s concert. Even better, as I began to get to know the people here on Project, the more I admired each of them. Every member of this family brings something amazing and unique to the larger picture and the picture would not be complete without the personalities that make it whole.
Over a year later I have seen other interns and even a few employees come and go. I have stuffed my belly at many Local Lunches. I have seen Lyle not just scheduling his next appointment or event, but also down on “the floor” covered in various goo that even I want nothing to do with.
I have seen Rachel selflessly take time away from tedious grant writing to climb in the back of a smelly 18 wheeler and help unload pallets of sunflower oil drums …for no other reason than she knew I needed some help.
Leif has answered my phone calls regarding technical issues at all hours of the day and night, not giving up until a solution is found to whatever problem has presented itself.
Xiaohu has come in countless times on his day off to run the Gas Chromatograph on a moments notice.
I have witnessed (to great distress) McCayne pulling out her beautiful hair in the name of acquiring a new feedstock account – and have seen the same when she is maintaining an old one. I have seen Gabe keep a grin on his face despite his trusty Vac Truck breaking down well after midnight while he was working hard to collect more precious WVO.
I could go on for hours but this is a quick snapshot of my world here, the friends I have made, and the people who devote countless hours to the belief in “a better way”.
There are times of celebration and camaraderie. There are times of friction and stress. This is true with any family no matter how functional or dysfunctional they may be, but at the end of the day I feel the place some would call work, I call my second home because of what we do and the people who do it alongside me.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does it’s a beautiful thing.