Show Me the Biomass

Co-op receives first USDA approval for a BCAP-dedicated energy crop
By Kris Bevill | June 13, 2011

Last September, as soon as the USDA opened up the application window for its Biomass Crop Assistance Program, Centerview, Mo.-based Show Me Energy Cooperative was ready and waiting with its proposal. The 612-member group, which was formed in 2008, believed strongly in the conservation benefit of energy grasses and had already been using local varieties to fuel its pellet mill. Its intention was to utilize renewable biomass to feed a fully integrated biorefinery that would help re­duce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil, add value to local biomass feedstock supply, and provide stable, family-sup­porting jobs to people in the area.  Wanting to scale up its op­erations, the group enlisted the assistance of the USDA in elevating the amount of feedstock available in the area. In May, the group was rewarded for its efforts. The USDA agreed to provide about $15 million to Farm Service Agency offices servicing 39 counties in western Missouri and eastern Kansas to incentivize the establishment of dedicated energy crops on up to 50,000 acres of marginal land.

Sign-up began May 9 with a steady response from farmers, says Steve Flick, chairman of the board at Show Me Energy. He predicts that more than 1,000 farmers could eventually become involved in the project, but said it’s really anybody’s guess. “There might be some farmers who come in during the fall and there might be some next spring,” he says. “The decision is not made by our cooperative. The farmer will go into the local FSA office and it’s going to be up to him to decide what, or if any, of his farm is going to be eligible to put into an initial application.” The co-op expects two distinct groups to participate—young farmers interested in becoming a part of a dedicated energy production model and farmers nearing retirement who may be interested in the low-maintenance aspect of energy grass production.

BCAP will reimburse up to 75 percent of a producer’s establishment cost and participants can receive annual payments for up to five years for grassy crops, which is what has been selected for the area around Show Me Energy. BCAP doesn’t limit acres to marginal land, but Show Me Energy specified in its proposal that only those lands should be used in order to prevent interference with the feedstock supply of humans and livestock. The co-op defines “marginal” as being uneconomical or inaccessible for grain production. For example, Flick says flooded areas such as those that are located on levee or creek bottoms would work well because seed developers have identified strains of energy grasses that show very high tolerance for wet conditions.

Show Me Energy expects to begin receiving feedstock through the program in about two years, although participating producers are required to harvest the crops only once during the five-year contract. “In a free market enterprise, if he sees that he can make some money and he can harvest it, he’s going to do it,” he says.

Show Me Energy has been purchasing a variety of locally available energy grasses for two years already, paying between $45 and $60 per ton for the biomass. The cooperative currently operates a pellet mill that process 100,000 tons of feedstock annually. It has begun work on a $50 million expansion project that will double its feedstock intake and will produce 2 MMgy of biobutanol as well as enough power to supply the facility with all of its electricity needs. The expansion is expected to be complete in 2013. Flick says that while the co-op considered producing cellulosic ethanol, concerns over the long-term stability of the renewable fuel standard, coupled with the differences in chemical composition between the two fuels, led the group to settle on biobutanol production. “From a scientific standpoint, we really tried to validate some of the enzymatic reactions and it’s easier for us from a standpoint of a four-carbon versus a two,” he says.

Flick says that since Show Me Energy’s proposal was accepted, he’s received many calls from would-be partners, seeking to benefit from the groundwork laid so carefully by his co-op members. Does he offer them any words of advice? “Whether they’re a co-op or a private business, they’ve got to get private farmers onboard right off the bat,” he says. “If they don’t have the local participation of the community, no matter what technology they have, it won’t fly.”  —Kris Bevill