The Roots of Ethanol Production

By Mike Bryan | September 15, 2009
Congratulations to U.S. corn growers. They have produced yet another bumper crop of corn despite unfavorable weather conditions and roller coaster input prices. As this harvest season nears its end, thoughts turn to feedstocks and the vital role they play in the ethanol production process.

The Aug. 12 USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimate predicted the 2009-'10 corn crop will be the second largest on record and I think it's important to note that this is not the result of increased acres of corn being planted. In fact, fewer acres of corn were planted this year than last season due to unfavorable spring planting conditions in much of the Midwest. Rather, farmers are simply harvesting bigger yields per acre. It's a testament to the scientific advancements that continue to be made relative to agriculture, and when corn farmers reap the rewards of scientific advancements, ethanol producers benefit.

But it's not just the kernels that ethanol producers and farmers are interested in. Poet LLC kicked off its 2009 corn cob campaign in early July, harvesting cobs in Texas, South Dakota and Iowa. Vermeer Corp. unveiled a wagon-style cob harvester this year that is expected to serve an emerging market of farmers and biofuel producers. Texas AgriLife Research hosted an energy sorghum harvest demonstration in August, proving that capabilities exist to grow, harvest and convert the tall grass to ethanol in an efficient manner. In Virginia, Osage Bio Energy recently announced a feedstock procurement partnership it has formed with Perdue AgriBusiness to bring in barley to its soon operational Hopewell, Va., plant. The company will utilize winter barley to produce 65 MMgy and has plans to replicate its business model at other East Coast locations. The company said barley can easily be grown in those areas, but demand needs to be guaranteed before farmers will plant it.

There is still much work to be done to perfect alternative biofuel crop and corn production and harvest techniques but progress is being made. For these reasons, EPM has decided to devote a monthly column to the topic of feedstocks. This month's "Taking Stalk" column explores sorghum as a feedstock that is gaining popularity. Future columns will examine corn-related issues, cellulosic feedstocks and small grains. The column is intended to provide ethanol producers with insightful information regarding the most important advancements being made to our most important production inputfeedstocks.

The partnership between grower and producer is strong in the ethanol industry. Without feedstocks, there is no need to discuss processing techniques or output yields or any other element of the production process. And as proven by the demonstrations conducted this season, farmers are influenced by the ethanol industry when exploring new ideas to diversify their crop portfolio and ethanol producers are ready to provide support and new sources of revenue to American farmers.

That's the way I see it.