Accidental Guru

Occasionally this column features what I like to call the Gems of Chatham County, according to me. It’s one of the perks of the job. The Gems are those people, places and things that make Chatham one of the most interesting places in North Carolina.

I must disclose that our current shiny stone, Lyle Estill, and his equally accomplished wife,Tami Schwerin, are warm personal friends of mine.

What follows is a heretofore unpublished piece I wrote some months back:

When he’s asked about it, Lyle laughs, his eyes assume a reflective twinkle mixed with childlike wonder, and he reminisces on the six year path that made him an “accidental” bio-diesel guru.

It began with a ride on a bio-diesel bus at the Eno River Festival. He wondered if he could power his 1962 Romanian diesel tractor with the stuff.

Being that there was no bio-diesel commercially available, Lyle and a friend salvaged the oil from a recent deep-fried turkey dinner, made a small investment in some lye, alcohol and a thrift shop blender, and brewed their first micro batch of bio-diesel fuel. Soon, visions of a bio-diesel gas station were dancing in his head. But Lyle was determined to keep this idea secret from his daughter, Jessalyn, who kept the “ledger of his flops.”

From vermiculture, and cold frame vegetable growing to brick recycling, Jessalyn kept tally. The wackiest idea? : pre-flavored snails raised on garlic and cilantro.

Lyle is now President of Piedmont Bio-Fuels Cooperative, a million gallon a year production facility tucked into the woods of Pittsboro. As the business has grown, it’s employees have had to retool several times to change with the market. This is something many big producers, now extinct, could not do.

Bio-fuels have often been criticized for the environmental and cultural harm they cause world wide. Lyle defends his small operation, “This is not the GMO (genetically modified organism) soy mono-culture, burning down the rainforest, kill the orangutans bio-diesel. This is community-scale, [and it] has an inkling of sustainability to it.”

Sustainability hasn’t been easy to achieve. Piedmont’s operation once resulted in a waste stream of about 50,000 pounds week. Lyle paid dearly to compost the gooey mess. Now he makes another type of fuel from it, generates heat for the plant, and reaps a government subsidy for using renewable fuel. This innovation cut his costs and shrunk his carbon footprint.

In the space of six years, Lyle and the other principals, Rachel Burton and Leif Forer, have created a regional center not only for alternative fuels, but have also contributed to the local sustainable communities movement. Nothing could have been further from his mind. The incipient gathering of like-minded souls has coalesced, in part, around bio-diesel, the local food folks and the homegrown Shakori music festival. Lyle’s part, he claims, has all been “accidental, organic; we just sort of stumbled into it.”

That serendipitous stumbling has given Lyle a bully pulpit from which to write books and garner speaking invitations. Parallel to the bio-fuels revolution has been the progressive change in Chatham County government which has encouraged Lyle and other sustainability hopefuls.

When asked to give advice to aspiring green business entrepreneurs, Lyle cautions them to keep the scale small. “The next 100 million gallons of bio-diesel will not come from a behemoth that ships its feedstock through the Panama Canal, it will come from a hundred of these little guys that are located on feedstock opportunities.”

That’s the basis of Lyle’s belief that “small is possible”. It’s a concept squarely at odds with the all American, “bigger is better” philosophy.

Small dreams, small opportunities. Some would deride such as mere wishful thinking. But to paraphrase a corny old cliché, the mighty oak started out as just a nut. Ideas often begin small and sometimes sound a bit nutty perhaps.

We should all contain the kernel of such fertility.

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