John Otte, our longtime former colleague, is reporting from Brazil, where he is overwintering with wife Maria. Now retired from Wallaces Farmer and the other Farm Progress magazines he wrote for, John was the economics editor for Farm Progress for 35 years. John and Maria are now enjoying life in Maria’s native land, living close to her family, relatives and friends.
John is living near Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais. It's a metropolitan area of some 5.8 million people. His latest adventure while driving in Brazil has him pondering whether Brazilian soybean growers have figured out how to avoid selling dry matter in soybeans at the price of water.
By John Otte
Lesson learned: Manipulating your product's characteristics can pad your profits, or douse customers' desires to buy from you.
Over the years we've published several articles explaining how U.S. farmers forego income when they deliver grain that's at a moisture content that is below the content used to price it.
When farmers deliver grain that's below the base moisture content, they get paid for fewer bushels than they would if the grain was at the base moisture. In short, they sell dry matter at the price of water.
Selling dry matter at the price of water provides incentives to rewet grain that's below the base moisture. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits adding moisture to grain to raise the value. It does not prohibit adding moisture to grain to improve quality. Farmers can accomplish the latter by aerating on high-humidity days.
During the time I've spent in Brazil, I've pondered whether Brazilian farmers are more adept at managing moisture content of grains and soybeans than U.S. farmers.
The motor fuel connection
Brazil produces a lot of ethanol. Ethanol has a strong affinity to attract and absorb water. For example, when exposed to humid air, ethanol will absorb a good bit of water.
Remember back in the 1960s and ’70s, auto parts stores promoted Heet, a product to do away with gas line freeze. Heet contains methanol or isopropyl alcohol, both of which have a strong affinity for water. Heet added to gasoline absorbs a certain amount of water. The water stays in solution with the gasoline. The water does not settle out into the low spots in the tank and fuel line, and therefore does not freeze in the gas line to clog it.
Of course, limits exist. Back in your high school days, your chemistry teacher taught about saturated solutions. For example, 100 gallons of water will keep a teaspoon of salt in solution. But a pint of water will not keep 2 pounds of salt in solution. That is, when the water absorbs all of the salt it can hold, the rest precipitates out (or in this example, does not go into solution in the first place).
Likewise, how much water ethanol can absorb has a limit. Water exceeding that limit will settle out of the solution.
Too much water
Here's what happens when ethanol-blend gasoline contains too much water — my own experience. A month or so ago, my wife, Maria and I were going to hydroginastica at the Juatuba, Minas Gerais, Brazil town swimming pool. I started the car. I backed out into the street. Car quit. I was lucky. I got it going again.
Next day I'm getting ready to take Maria to the hair dresser. I can't get car running. It would wind over, but would not start. I summoned Tarcisio Machado, Maria's brother-in-law. We got the car down the driveway and backed into the street. He put it in third gear (five-speed manual transmission). Coasts downhill toward his house. Pops the clutch. It starts. He prepares to turn around in front of his house. Gets lined up with his driveway. Car quits.
One man fell way short of being strong enough to push the car uphill out into street, so it would be aimed down the hill. I suggested we take the lid off the breather (if we can identify it) and do like we did in the 1960s and pour a little gasoline directly into the “carburetor.” Tarcisio claimed electronic ignition has some sensor, so this would not be a good idea.
With teamwork and luck
Fortunately, Clara, Maria's sister, came out of the house. She gets a rock (this part of Brazil has no shortage of rocks). Tarcisio and I pushed as hard and as far uphill as we could. Clara strategically placed the rock in front of the rear wheel.
Tarcisio gets in. I kick the rock away from the wheel. He coasts down the hill a ways. Car powers up. He drives to the next corner, which is flatter. Car keeps running. That's our first run of good fortune — the car kept running.
We take Maria to hair dresser, which is no more than a mile from our house. However, by time we get there, rain is pouring down. That's our second run of good fortune: We did not have to try to get the car running, while stalled cross-wise in the street with rain pouring down.
So now I'm thinking maybe the fuel pump is shot, or maybe the injector pump is shot. If I'm lucky, maybe the fuel filter is clogged. I envision all kinds of ignition issues. All those fixes I figured would be pricey.
NO CARBURETOR: Modern cars are complex. John Otte (left) considers pouring gasoline directly into the breather — if he can open it. Tarcisio Machado counsels that doing so is not a good idea.
We drive to mechanic shop. Park the car, aiming it downhill, of course. We chose a place uphill from somebody's driveway. Rain continues.
Mechanic's diagnosis and recommendation
The mechanic explained that when you have water in the gas, the system has to pump the water, which is heavier than gasoline, through before it can get enough gasoline in the mix to start. The mechanic said we should get a bottle of an additive called Orbi-Flex.
The mechanic cautioned us not to buy any more gasoline at that station where we most recently filled the tank.
We bought the Orbi-Flex and poured it in the tank. Haven't had a bit of trouble since. That 8-ounce bottle cost 13 reais, about $4. Considerably less expensive than a fuel pump, an injector pump, any ignition parts or even a fuel filter.
This story sheds absolutely no light whatsoever on whether Brazilian soybean growers have figured out how to avoid selling dry matter in soybeans at the price of water.
However, it does suggest, as the mechanic implied, that some Brazilian motor fuel vendors have figured out how to sell water at the price of gasoline.
Not an isolated incident
Brazil isn’t the only place in the world where this occurs. “Years ago, I had problems like that in Ohio — twice,” says Corning, Iowa, farmer Ralph Neill. “Both times I had to take the tank off and drain the fuel [and water] out. Good deal for the guy who is selling water for gas!”
Here’s another “value added” lesson: Not long after we got the ethanol in the gas tank dried out, Maria's sister and I were at the supermarket. I read the weekly ad, which promoted frozen chicken wings for 8.99 reais per kilo. Maria's sister declared, “Fresh chicken wings at 10.49 reais per kilo are a better deal. You buy a lot of ice with frozen chicken wings.”
Final thought: I know nothing about Brazilian motor fuel regulations that might prohibit adding moisture to ethanol to raise value, or about food regulations that might prohibit adding water to bags of chicken wings before freezing them.