HARTVILLE, Ohio — Renewable Lubricants Inc., operating out of the farm of Bill and Jackie Garmier, is one of those family agriculture stories that gives farmers hope.
Starting with the same vegetable oil found in the kitchen cabinet, the Garmiers, using his years of experience in petroleum lubricant development and her business background, have built a bio-based business of 150 lubricant products they sell worldwide.
While RLI floats on oil, the voyage hasn’t always been smooth.
“When we started this program, they told us vegetable oil would not work,” Bill Garmier said.
The vice president of RLI gave a tour of the facility during Portage County Agriculture Day, March 20. The crowd of nearly 100 included Robert Boggs, the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, who presented the farming couple with the department’s Ambassador of Agriculture Award.
Indeed, straight vegetable oil won’t do what Garmier had in mind — lubricate internal combustion engines and transmissions in cars, trucks, buses, yachts and heavy equipment. The secret is in the patented recipe he adjusts and refines to meet the challenges of very high and very low temperatures.
Vegetable oils, which are biodegradable and obtained from renewable resources, offer much better environmental and economic stability than petroleum-based lubricants, Garmier said. They also perform better, their benefits including low volatility, high flash points, super-high viscosity and excellent lubricity, he added.
The Garmiers, sixth-generation farmers, started their venture in 1990 and their research got them an in-kind USDA/Department of Defense grant in 1993 to make vegetable oil into a practical bio-lubricant. Through various grants over the years, they have developed a system of mixing food-grade synthetic oils with vegetable oils to meet the demand for green energy alternatives. Their products contain 70-90 percent vegetable oil.
When the Garmiers started the venture in 1990, it was becoming more obvious the U.S. couldn’t depend on foreign oil, Jackie Garmier said. Their first grant was founded on the need to improve national security, she said.
“We all knew we would have to go to alternative fuels.”
Over the years they have collaborated with numerous government agencies and corporations to become a leading developer and manufacturer of high performance bio-based lubricants.
Recently, the Garmiers have added Grainger to the list of companies who distribute their products, Bill Garmier said, a giant step for the business.
Farm start. While the Garmiers till 250 acres, including 115 acres of their own, they don’t process the crops into oil.
Tankers bring 6,000 gallons of vegetable oil at a time to the farm. A dike surrounds the lower level of the facility, just in case of a spill, Bill Garmier said. Huge containers of oil are stored in the buildings.
Any batch being processed has to be kept warm with six 3,000-watt heaters, a trial in the winter. “Ohio Edison loves us,” he said.
While the warehouse area is full of the huge tanks, the front of the facility has a modest office and a small but modern lab with a variety of equipment, including a minus 40-degree freezer.
“We run little, tiny lab batches,” Bill Garmier said.
The market is growing and their research and development efforts have to keep pace with demand.
RLI’s first and best supporter is the Portage County Transit Authority, which uses their products in its buses, Jackie Garmier said. The operation not only promotes RLI’s products, but bus drivers brag about how great they are.
“They’re definitely our champions,” she said.
Also at the top of their list of successes is racing champion Mark Thomas, who has driven his way to seven world championships using RLI products, she said.
Parked in the dock for the Ag Day event was a F-250 truck supplied by the Ohio Soybean Council. It is one of the business’ experiments, running on both soybean diesel fuel and soybean engine oil.
Bill Garmier said the bioproducts the company sells are cost efficient compared to petroleum-based lubricants, especially since they are made in the U.S., are non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
Sales volume is growing daily and, providing it stays on track, the business plan for the next two years includes rail space to allow delivery loads of the vegetable oil on railcar, Bill Garmier said.
“It’s our business and our life,” he said, and it means their family farm can survive despite tough economic times. The opportunity to diversify has been invaluable, he said.
“Whatever they told us we couldn’t do, today we’re doing it.”
His parents, Walter and June Garmier, who farm 50 acres nearby and help their son with crops, attended the ceremony, gratified at his success.
“I never thought he’d go into anything this big,” said his mother before the event started. “He’s always had ideas. And he’s always been a farm person — never wanted to go into town.”
Boggs, when declaring the Garmiers Ambassadors of Agriculture, said RLI is on the cusp of the bio-revolution.
“Their operation is a shining example of how traditional agriculture meets the nation’s need for energy, food and fiber,” he said.
Thanks to the Garmiers’ research and entrepreneurship, the country can be more independent of foreign oil.
“Petroleum polymers can be replaced by polymers made from bio-based materials,” he said.
Later he predicted the bio-based polymer industry will see exponential growth.
“We need it at all levels — regional transit, the military and the consumer market,” Boggs said.
“He’s willing to tinker and try and make mistakes. It’s all about farmers — their vision, determination and talent,” Boggs said.
Read more about Ohio Agriculture Day in Farm and Dairy.