Ohio firm gets USDA biomass grant

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WASHINGTON — Marginal or abandoned crop ground in northeastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania may find new life in a new crop.

A $5.7 million USDA grant has been awarded to Aloterra Energy, with local headquarters in Ashtabula County, to establish a biomass crop of giant miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) as a renewable biomass feedstock for Aloterra’s biomass conversion facility in Conneaut.

The conversion plant will process the giant miscanthus stems into pellets to be shipped to other facilities or users for use in bioenergy products.

The grant is part of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) authorized by the 2008 farm bill. The Ohio/Pa. grant was one of four project awards announced June 15.

Other biomass grants were awarded in Arkansas, and in Aurora, Mo., and Columbia, Mo. MFA Oil Biomass, a partnership between Aloterra Energy and MFA Oil Company, will operate these project areas.

Enrolling acres now

The Ohio/Pa. project now has guaranteed funding for 5,344 acres in 2011, which will go to the first farmers to sign up in Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio and Crawford, Erie and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania.

The goal is to establish 50,000 acres of miscanthus by 2014.

The sign-up period opens June 20, with a deadline yet to be determined. Farmers interested in participating in the project area should contact Aloterra first, and then finalize enrollment at their local Farm Service Agency office.

Annual payment

Under current guidelines, BCAP will reimburse farmers up to 75 percent of planting costs and pay an annual rent payment (the amount was not announced) for five years while farmers wait for their crops to mature. Once the crops mature, farmers will be eligible to receive two years of matching payments for their tonnage, up to $45 per ton beyond the selling price.

Another potential income stream could come from carbon credits.

The miscanthus crop could be in place for as long as 20 to 30 years.

Equipment used to plant perennial grasses can be modified to plant miscanthus rhizomes. The crop can be harvested and baled with heavy-duty haying equipment, like large square balers.

Underutilized ground

Scott Coye-Huhn, director of business development for Aloterra Energy, said the company has been working in Ashtabula County for about two years, and it’s currently testing the pelletizing equipment at its Conneaut facility.

“We believe there are several markets that are developed enough that we can find a place for this.”

Last spring, the company planted about 20 acres with the giant miscanthus near Monroe, Ohio.

Coye-Huhn said the region’s marginal farmland will be the perfect site for the biomass crop.

“We don’t want to compete with corn and beans,” he said. “We don’t want to have the food vs. fuel discussion.”

He said farmers could receive $55/ton from the harvested miscanthus stems.

Renewable portfolio

On a media conference call after the announcement, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the project will help Ohio and Pennsylvania meet mandated renewable portfolio standards.

Ohio’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard requires 25 percent of the electricity sold in the state to come from alternative energy resources, with half of that coming from renewable energy sources by 2025. Pennsylvania’s Renewables Portfolio Standard requires 18 percent of alternative energy resources by 2020-21, 8 percent coming from renewables.

“We’ve got to produce our own energy, here in America,” Vilsack said.

These clean energy investments can be an opportunity to farmers, added U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, during the conference call.

Brown, who wrote a letter of support for the project to the USDA, said it’s also a reminder “that agriculture is a vital part of securing our energy security.

“It’s clear Ohio is leading the way in clean and renewable energy development.”

Ashtabula was also a key site in the selection process, because of the possibility of converting the former FirstEnergy C plant, now powered by coal, to run on biomass.

Tricky to establish

Ashtabula County Ohio State University Extension Ag Educator David Marrison said farmers are watching the company’s initial stand closely to see if it will really do well in the region’s cold, snowy winters, and wet springs.

“Up in Ashtabula County, it’s a whole different world,” he said.

He also said it’s likely the initial phase will be to get some rhizomes in the ground to serve as “seed acres” for future plantings.

The establishment of a stand is the trickiest part, Marrison added, and the crop needs a lot of water during this phase, and may require irrigation to get established.

It’s also a big unknown whether weather will cooperate to be able to harvest the miscanthus when it goes dormant in the winter or very early spring.

“The window is tight,” Marrison said, “but I think it can be done.”

He added, however, the crop has potential to flourish in the area because it does adapt to wetter soils, marginal soils.

“We have so much marginal ground that’s not getting gobbled up by your agronomic folks for corn or soybeans.”

Farmer education

The grant plan requires the company to offer educational meetings twice annually for participating farmers, and an orientation program for new producers, to outline best management practices and standards, as well as pest and disease treatment, and overall crop management.

Farmers will also be required to have producer conservation plans, and must maintain setbacks and buffers to prevent unintentional spread.

There will be a learning curve, Marrison said, but miscanthus is similar to hay, and “our farmers know how to work with forage crops.”

(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell or follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy.)

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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