Grease Is The Word

Jim Esbenshade converts restaurant cooking waste into sustainable income and fertile farmland on his Oklahoma farm.

By Mark Johnson | Photos By Rob Mattson

Where some people might have seen just a big, ugly pile of sludge, Jim Esbenshade saw a need and an opportunity.

While visiting a friend at an area sewage treatment facility in the late 1990s, the Colbert, Oklahoma, farmer noticed a mound of what appeared to be organic sludge. “My friend said, ‘Jim, if you could make that stuff go away, you’d be doing the world a favor,’” recalls Esbenshade.

“He explained to me that the pile of stuff was cooking grease that had come out of the sewer system. The chemical agent they had used to dissolve it in the past had been outlawed by the government because it was toxic. So,” Jim continues, “this stuff was just piling up.”

Esbenshade went home and put pencil to paper. After several months of investigation, he realized that if he could devise a way to separate the various components of the waste, he might be able to not only create an additional revenue source for himself by creating a disposal service, but also use the byproducts as fertilizer and livestock feed ingredients.

“So I enlisted the help of some people in that industry, visited various facilities, and educated myself,” he says. “After about 18 months, we came up with a patented process of using aerobic digesters to process cooking greases—before they are released into sewer systems—into usable products.”

Better soil from byproduct

The process was a perfect complement to his longtime passion for improving soil, Esbenshade says. “My dream since moving to Oklahoma in 1973 was to recreate the extremely fertile soil of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.

“The liquid byproduct we create does just that. It is comparable to 30-30-30 fertilizer, and does a wonderful job with our silage and wheat, either top-dressed or scratched in. I haven’t purchased commercial fertilizer since 1997, and our land produces outstanding yields every year.”

In addition, some of the fats that are isolated in the process go into custom livestock feed mixtures for his commercial beef cattle operation, further reducing costs. Esbenshade points out that the program is highly regulated by state and federal institutions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“It took many years to establish a relationship with the EPA, and they’ve been extremely cooperative, because they understand that I’m filling a very important niche,” he explains. “But it doesn’t come without its challenges. For example, I am allowed to use the fertilizer only on land that I own, which has made it necessary for us to expand.”

Over the years, Esbenshade has incorporated “green” practices in his operation wherever possible, including a method he picked up from similar German facilities. “On a trip to Germany, I noticed that their processors were never in plain view,” he says. “They always surrounded their digesters with cedar trees as an odor block. Since the early 2000s, I’ve probably transplanted 10,000 cedar trees on my property for that reason. It’s amazing how well it works.”

Today, Esbenshade processes several million gallons of waste annually, receiving shipments of cooking grease from dozens of Midwestern states. “I really believe that recycling practices like this are the way of the future,” he says. “As our population continues to grow, we have to find creative ways to take care of our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got.”