SALEM, Ohio — Long before farmers in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania were allowed to grow giant miscanthus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local partners completed studies to make sure it would not compete with existing agriculture and that the crop — a sterile variety — truly would not spread.
They targeted land that was marginal in nature, wet-lying and of lesser value for conventional farm crops. And, they looked at potential uses — everything from cellulosic biofuel to plant-based bioproducts.
The crop is organized by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, and Altoerra Energy, a company formed in 2010 with a location in Ashtabula County, that bills itself as developing biomass conversion facilities through growth of biomass crops, that lead to biomass fuel marketing.
But three years into the crop, there’s a tale of two sides over how it’s all going.
“The only people who think it is feasible are the people who own the company and the people who work for them,” said Ashtabula County grain farmer John Shymanski.
He farms about 1,300 acres in the area. He said he declined to sign up for the miscanthus program because markets for corn and soybeans were too good to pass up.
One of the biggest concerns with the crop was that it would compete with other crops and other farmers. Shymanski said he lost about 30 acres to the crop, but it didn’t affect him much from a competition standpoint.
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However, he knows of other farms where the crop “is in direct competition.”
Grain farmer Tom Yuhasz, whose family runs a grain mill in Orwell, said the crop was supposed to be limited to less productive ground, but he knows of farmers who have lost corn and soybean acreage to miscanthus.
Yuhasz farms about 3,000 acres. He said he’s concerned that because the miscanthus is cut and removed at harvest, the ground will end up losing nutrients.
“I think it’s a total waste of our natural resources” and “taxpayer money,” he said.
Ken Miklos, who grain farms near Conneaut, said many of the fields appear to be low quality, and farmers are struggling to get the crop harvested — which typically must be done between Dec. 1 and April 15 — snow season in Ohio.
From what he’s seen, much of the crop is struggling to grow, and he’s seeing land rents in the area go up, which he believes is partly due to miscanthus.
“If I’d of planted (my crop) and it looks like theirs, I’d be broke,” he said.
But Aloterra, which is also growing miscanthus in Missouri and Arkansas through a partnership with the much larger entity, MFA Oil, is not broke. They’ve invested in new, large scale tractors and farm machinery to care for the crop — things Miklos said would be hard for most area farmers to afford.
“That’s my tax dollars that they’re driving around,” said the 67-year-old farmer. “I’m not against green, the only thing I’m against is blowing your (taxpayer) money.”
Still big on everyone’s minds is what will be done with the crop. While federal funds were initially issued to target biofuel creation, it now appears the focus will be on bioproducts and “high-end absorbents,” with some others yet to be announced.
When Aloterra announced its project in June of 2011, it intended to “utilize local farmers to produce the renewable energy crop,” which sequesters carbon and provides an alternative, clean-burning energy source for “power generation, agricultural heating and next-generation liquid fuels.”
The crop was anticipated to decrease the nation’s dependency on foreign oil, create 4,000 jobs (nationwide) and bring new economic growth to the region. Ashtabula’s share of the jobs, according to a June 2011 USDA statement announcing the program, would be 1,210 jobs.
Scott Coye-Huhn, senior vice president and chief legal officer for Aloterra, said the company hopes to have 24 people working at its current miscanthus processing facility in Andover, within the next few months, and he expects to open a new facility this year that will bring 26 jobs.
Some farmers say it’s still too soon to judge the crop — which can grow for 20 years — but they say it will face a steep challenge, even if it’s used in bioproducts.
That’s because just like fuels, there are other competing sources of absorbent material — crop stover, wood chips and paper products — that are just as available if not more so.
Todd Atkinson, acting director for the Farm Service Agency’s Office of External Affairs, said the early setbacks should not hinder the enthusiasm for the crop.
He likened it to medical discoveries and other scientific breakthroughs in American history, which in the end, more than paid for the investment.
“You’ve got to take that first step,” he said. “And when you make a commitment, you stick to it and keep moving forward.”
About the miscanthus project:
• Giant miscanthus is a sterile hybrid, warm-season grass that can be converted into energy for heat, power, liquid biofuels, and biobased products. The crop can grow for 15 or more years, and harvest is typically done between Dec. 1 and April 15.
• Farmers in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania were encouraged to grow the crop through a federally subsidized biomass program, known as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. Authorized in the 2008 farm bill, it included three miscanthus projects in Ohio/Pennsylvania, Missouri and Arkansas.
• The Ohio biomass program worked in cooperation with Aloterra Energy of Ashtabula County. The company was formed in 2010. Aloterra formed a partnership with the MFA Oil Co. — a farmer-owned cooperative — to operate the project areas in Missouri and Arkansas. That partnership is known as MFA Oil Biomass.
• Multiple forms of federal compensation were available to farmers who grew the crop. Farmers could get up to 75 percent of crop establishment costs reimbursed, in addition to rent payments ranging from $40-$100 per acre, and depending on use of the crop at harvest, they were eligible for a matching payment on tonnage, up to $45 per ton.
• Payments are reduced during harvest years, based on the value of the harvest and any program matching payments.
The reduction is only 1 percent if the crop is used for cellulosic biofuel. There is a 10 percent reduction if the crop is converted to an advanced biofuel, a 25 percent reduction if converted to heat, power or biobased products, and a 100 percent reduction if the crop is used for other purposes.
• In a February 2013 report to some members of congress, FSA reported that the Ohio-Pennsylvania project had a little more than $600,000 in obligated rental payments. At the time, FSA had obligated to pay $2.8 million in establishment costs for the same region, with slightly more than $1.7 million issued. The crop is a five-year project.
• In Ohio and Pennsylvania, about 3,600 acres of miscanthus have been planted. Nationally, about 16,200 acres of miscanthus are enrolled through BCAP.
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