NAPLES — A few years ago, it seemed jatropha might take root as a new energy crop in Southwest Florida.
But growth plans for the crop — and other biofuel crops — have been stunted.
In 2008, Paul Dalton, the owner My Dream Fuel LLC, put nearly 1 million jatropha seedlings in the ground at a nursery in Hendry County and announced plans to open a $1.5 million, 15,000-square-foot center for seed crushing and plant cloning at the State Farmers' Market off Edison Avenue in Fort Myers. The center never went up and the promising company went belly up.
"They went kaput," said Gene McAvoy, a vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS in Hendry County.
After Dalton came William Vasden Jr. with a new venture. He heavily promoted jatropha and other energy producing crops at workshops and meetings across Southwest Florida — and across the state.
In September, a federal grand jury in Fort Myers indicted Vasden, the owner of Tampa-based USCJO Inc., on charges of misleading investors who poured millions into kenaf and camelina crops and citrus chips, believing they could double or triple their money.
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Richard Galvano, developer of the new Florida Gulf Coast University innovation hub near Southwest Florida International Airport, and Vasden were two of three managing members in a company called I-Hub Farms LLC. Galvano said he invested "pennies" on farming with Vasden to see if his experimental crops could be grown cheaply enough to make them viable for biofuel production in Southwest Florida.
"We farmed with Bill to see if we could reach that goal and the farmer didn't farm like he said he would," he said.
Vasden faces 30 counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements.
The federal indictment against Vasden lists two of the investors only by their initials, "R.G." and "J.B," saying they wired $416,500 in payments to USCJO in February and March 2011. State records show I-Hub's other managing member as John Backe.
I-Hub Farms was dissolved earlier this year after it failed to file an annual report with the state, records show.
At one time, Galvano had discussed his hopes of landing an 80,000-gallon biofuel refinery at FGCU's innovation hub, which would be dedicated to sustainability and renewable energy research.
Galvano said Vasden had nothing to do with the planned 241-acre research hub — and the indictment won't affect the project.
Other investors listed in Vasden's indictment are the College of Life Foundation, an Estero-based nonprofit that is the remnants of the Koreshan Unity, Cormass Corp., a Canadian company, and one listed only as "E.S."
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Vasden convinced a few growers in Southwest Florida to plant jatropha, but they couldn't make money on it, McAvoy said.
"As far as I know, there's no market for it at all in Florida," he said. "If you produce the oil and send it somewhere, there's probably a market somewhere, but not in Florida."
In 2007 and 2008, investors poured money into jatropha projects across the tropics in the U.S. and around the world, including southern Africa. But the crop turned out to be harder to grow than first thought, requiring fertile land, nutrients and water like any other crop. Many of the companies that got into the jatropha business have left it or scaled back their operations.
McAvoy and others tried to warn local growers about the pitfalls of investing in energy crops like jatropha as Vasden talked them up in a big way.
"It was kind of pie in the sky," said Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association.
The CJO in Vasden's company name stands for "Crude Jatropha Oil." He's charged with falsely leading investors into believing he had buyers lined up to purchase his harvested crops and with taking more than $3.2 million in investor money for himself, instead of putting it into his farming business. His trial is set for December in federal court in Fort Myers.
"Bill has dedicated his time and energy and resources to growing renewable energy crops and he was one of the first to do so in Florida," said his Miami defense attorney Mycki Ratzan. "There are a lot of people looking to capitalize on his knowledge and efforts and this indictment is a very easy way for them to get him out of the equation. Needless to say, these allegations are false and we really look forward to presenting the truth to a jury and him being fully vindicated."
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Vasden had a farm off Church Road in Hendry County he showed off to investors and other growers, where he experimented with jatropha, kenaf and camelina.
Camelina, a yellow-flowering plant, produces seeds with oil that primarily has been used in paints and cosmetics. Kenaf, with its cream-colored flowers, have wedge-like seeds that contain an edible vegetable oil that's used in everything from cosmetics to industrial lubricants.
The jatropha tree, native to Mexico and Latin America, has been grown in other countries, such as India and Africa, for fuel and medicine. It produces fruit pods with oily black seeds that can be crushed to make oil, which can be converted into diesel fuel.
Vasden and other promoters have overstated the value of the crops and the demand for them, McAvoy said.
It takes a big investment to grow the energy crops and harvest them and that investment is hard to recoup when no one seems in a rush to buy the oil they produce, he said.
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It costs more than $1,000 an acre to grow jatropha, but even if the crop produced 400 gallons of oil an acre as some promoters have touted, the oil is likely to sell for $2 a gallon, generating $800 an acre, McAvoy said.He sees two big problems with the jatropha crop. There are big labor costs because the trees flower and fruit over a six-month span, stretching out the harvest time and driving up harvesting costs, McAvoy said.
Plus, the pods will often open up and seeds will fall to the ground, making them more difficult to harvest.
"You want them to stay there until you're ready to pick them," McAvoy said.
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A few years before Vasden started talking up jatropha, Dalton, the owner of My Dream Fuel, boasted there was a strong demand for its oil, saying "there are about 100 buyers for every gallon you produce."
Dalton hoped to sell the tree to farmers here and across the country to raise them as oil-producers. His dreams were dashed when the weather turned on him.
After Dalton planted his jatropha seedlings in 2008, Southwest Florida had two of its coldest winters on record, ravaging his crop, said Martha Avila, the sustainability program coordinator for the University of Florida/IFAS in Lee County.
"He lost I believe more than 50 or 70 percent of the plants. He was devastated to see that many losses," she said of Dalton."He didn't really follow our recommendations," she added. "He didn't protect the plants to be sure the plants could make it."The University of Florida/IFAS continues to do research, which includes experiments with jatropha plantings in Lee County. Much of the jatropha research is centered in Homestead.
Dalton's dream just came too early, with more research needed to determine if the crop is commercially viable in this region, Avila said.
"I believe it's a matter of research and development," she said. "The private sector and of course the public sector, they need to fund us more."
__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden