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Planting Ideas, Harvesting Solutions

How USU's Dallas Hanks Could Nudge the World

ON THE SURFACE, Dallas Hanks '91 MS appears to consist solely of contradictions. They begin with small, symbolic juxtapositions that slowly spiral outward, gain momentum, and swallow him whole. The sandals he wears to his dusty field. The iPhone he leaves face down on the straw bale and the midnight blue BMW he'll drive home to the suburbs. His use of phrases like “'til the cows come home” without a hint of drawl. The fact that he hopes his big idea — an idea that could breathe new life into American agriculture and the biofuel industry — will soon be obsolete.

Drifting between labels is typical for Hanks, an energetic 47–year–old Ph.D. student in USU's Plants, Soils and Climate Department. Growing up on a dairy farm on the south banks of the Snake River outside Burley, Idaho, milking cows and driving tractors and pickups as a child may sound charming to some, but Hanks couldn't get out quickly enough. He says he disliked farming because he'd been forced to do it, but when he left the state to attend college, he chose to major in agronomy. “I hated agriculture with a passion, but for some reason I did it,” he says. The apparent love–hate continued. Hanks earned a master's in plant science from USU in 1990, then immediately left the field to work as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

“I was making really good money,” he says, “but I wasn't really happy. I had the epiphany that money isn't going to be happiness.” A 1903 sermon he had read years earlier, discouraging “light employments” and calling for “builders, mechanics, farmers, and men who can use their powers to produce something for the use of man,” began to weigh on him, as did the now–happy memories of his youth. He quit his job. Hanks calls his subsequent return to agriculture a “maturing,” finally appreciating both his own roots and the importance of the industry to American society. And he soon made the connection between agriculture and a longtime passion: sustainability. The two, he says, go hand in hand. “Most rural lifestyle is already sustainable. We are the stewards of the land that we own.” It's a responsibility Hanks takes personally. In 1993, after leaving the pharmaceutical industry, he founded a “teeny tiny” research company in order to innovate, give back, and catch some of the ideas rolling in his head — ideas like using avocado pits and other “agricultural woods” to build furniture. His real passion, if one prevails, lies here. “I've always been an innovator,” he says. “I try to pick problems that are foundational in nature.”

“The research goal would be to determine the feasibility of growing biofuel feedstock in nontraditional agronomic areas, like roadsides, airports and construction areas…and to produce 50 million gallons of biofuel in five years.”

Enter the big idea. There occurred no Philo Farnsworth moment, when the young inventor of television saw in his own Idaho fields a vision of how to scan and transmit moving images. Dallas Hanks says he simply put two and two together. America is economically dependent on oil — especially foreign oil — and emissions from oil–fueled machinery are polluting air and water and setting off enormous environmental concerns. The biofuel industry, which represents perhaps the smoothest path to reducing emissions and dependence, is struggling due to a lack of available land for growing biofuel feedstock plants. In fact, between 70 and 80 percent of the facilities that produce biofuel currently sit idle due to the lack of feedstock. The Utah Department of Transportation, however, owns nearly 6,000 miles of highway roadsides that cost millions in state taxpayer dollars to maintain, though the land isn't actually used. In fact, the whole country has around 10 million acres of such land. Eureka!

Utilize expensively maintained, yet unused state land (where food won't grow anyway) for biofuel feedstock like canola and safflower. It almost sounds too simple. In 2006, Hanks pitched his idea to Shana Lindsey, director of research at Utah Department of Transportation. The benefits were clear: not only does UDOT take an impressive leap forward by using Hanks's biofuel for its fleet, but picturesque flower–lined roadsides might actually be cheaper to maintain than the vacant desert land of today. If that's not enough, the project also came with the potential to rein in weed populations and create jobs in agriculture. Intrigued by the prospects, Lindsey bought the project immediately and took it on herself. “As research director,” she says, “I was approached a lot with a lot of different ideas, which I always referred to my staff to handle, but this was very promising, and I thought it would solve a lot of problems.”

Hanks realized that his undertaking was about to outgrow the confines of his research company, and so called Ralph Whitesides '74, his master's thesis advisor at USU, suggesting the idea for a Ph.D. project. “No one ever comes to a major professor saying ‘I want to do this project and I've already got funding,’” Whitesides says. “It's usually the other way around.” Whitesides happily agreed, and the two planned to work at least until the UDOT money ran out.

The research goal would be to determine the feasibility of growing biofuel feedstock in nontraditional agronomic areas like roadsides, airports, military bases, railroad and construction areas, and the like. The brazen secondary goal? Produce 50 million gallons of biofuel in five years. If he's successful, Hanks may deserve more than a degree. The notion of using open state lands to grow biofuel feedstock does seem obvious, or at least intuitive in retrospect, and Hanks acknowledges that he wasn't the first to think of it. Though Hanks didn't know it at the time, former USDA Undersecretary Gale Buchanan had published an article in the journal Weeds in 1974 discussing the potential benefits of using roadsides for biofuel. Needless to say, his idea didn't go far. Buchanan happened to be in the audience in 2008, though, when Hanks presented his own plan at BioEnergy Awareness Days in Washington, DC. The veteran researcher introduced himself to Hanks, and the two rallied others at the conference. When it was over, Hanks returned home as founder and head of the FreeWays to Fuel National Alliance.

The alliance now includes 13 other land–grant universities. It's more of an idea consortium than anything — different entities may plant whatever and wherever is most appropriate for their respective climates and societies. “Flexibility is built into the project,” Hanks says. “We're feedstock agnostic.” In addition, several municipalities and state departments of transportation, the U.S. Military, New Holland Agriculture, Monsanto, Aerway Aerating, and the LDS Church have signed on to the project, which continues to spread and succeed. In North Carolina's friendly climate, the program has already produced a bountiful harvest. Tennessee and Washington, among others, are proving promising as well. Military researchers are considering allowing Hanks and Whitesides to dig holes in the buffer zones surrounding their bases this year, in preparation to plant there next year. “High–tech, intense stuff is being done,” Hanks says.

The volume of attention that FreeWays to Fuel has received since its inception is testament to the project's visibly enormous potential. Right from the start, Hanks and his idea were featured in trade publications and local media, then USA Today, and he was invited to speak at bioenergy and agricultural symposia across the country. He still spends a good deal of time on the road speaking and teaching, and for good reason. “It's just a very novel idea,” says DeeVon Bailey '80 '81 MS, associate VP for international research at USU. “Novelty isn't always associated with solid science, but in this case, it is.”


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