It began, as most dreams do, with a simple desire to make things better. “We’re shipping our cattle, our commodities and our kids right out of our country, raw,” says Kent Wasson, a Malta, MT, rancher and wheat grower.

So, what started as a small oilseed-crushing operation housed in an old Malta airport hangar and designed to keep a few crops and some kids at home, has grown to become what could be the biggest innovation in synthetic motor oil in the last 50 years – a motor oil that uses biodegradable beef tallow to keep America moving.

Kent Wasson, MT rancherWasson is a member and past chairman of the Montana State University (MSU) Ag Research and Extension Board. He remembers around 10 years ago struggling with how to bring value-added agricultural jobs to the state. “If we can make jobs for those kids, they’ll stay,” he says.

They learned from MSU researchers that canola oil can be refined into a lubricant. Challenged by MSU’s ag dean with, “if you’re going to talk the talk, you ought to walk the walk,” Wasson and his team built the crushing operation and developed a bio-based bar and chain oil they sold to the Forest Service, as well as a product they dubbed Ag-40 for its resemblance to the popular spray-on lubricant.

As they built the company, they survived on several grants and money from an overseas investor. But when USDA’s Ag Research Service (ARS) told them about a bio-based motor oil made from fatty acids that ARS had developed, the group put their farms on the dotted line. They borrowed money from their local economic development group, and bid on the license agreement for the fatty acid molecule and the refining process. And they won.

They aimed for the license agreement on the motor oil process, but the molecule also has applications in cosmetics and textiles. In the end, they wound up with license agreements to all three processes.

As they began to develop a formula for the motor oil, they discovered that fatty acids from beef tallow are as good or better than those from plant-based sources. “That hit home,” Wasson says. “We don’t grow a lot of oilseeds, but we all raise cows. So we thought that was really cool, that’s part of our industry.”

Then came the financial crisis and their investors went broke. “When we finally found this out, four or five of us made payroll out of our own pockets for about four months,” he says.

They quickly found two other investment bankers in California. “So we sold half of the company to them and put all the money back into the company,” he says.

It’s paid off. “I ran this deal for seven years,” Wasson says. “But when I called a major oil company, I got a secretary. When the investment bankers call, they get a vice president, and something happens. Now we have evolved to the point where we’re dealing with every major oil company.”