Organizing Biomass Farmers

Biomass projects probably won't follow a cookie-cutter approach. The lay of the land, the existing farm structure and transportation system will make each future biomass project unique.
By Susanne Retka Schill
Biomass is local. That may be an obvious statement, but when it comes to designing biomass supply systems for the future, all of the implications of that statement will be front and center. Biomass Magazine highlights three projects organizing farmers to find out what is being learned and the challenges that lie ahead.

The newest project is in the midst of western Minnesota's corn and soybean country where the land is mostly flat and 90 percent is planted to row crops. The University of Minnesota-Morris is building a biomass gasification plant to help heat its campus, and to provide a platform for biomass research.

In east Tennessee, the farms are small, nestled in the rolling hills and among the multiple tributaries of the Tennessee River in the valley between the Smokey Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. Cow/calf operations and dairies still dot the wooded landscape and the most common crops are soybeans and wheat. The University of Tennessee is partnering with Mascoma Corp. in the Tennessee Biofuels Project to develop a demonstration research facility using switchgrass, and eventually wood, to produce cellulosic ethanol.

Not all of Iowa is flat with miles of corn and soybean fields lining straight roads. Southeastern Iowa has less productive soils with rolling hills that are prone to soil loss when planted to row crops. With more than a decade of switchgrass research lead by the Chariton Valley Resource and Conservation District, the project is in a holding pattern and some of the acres planted to switchgrass for the research phase are being put back into row crops to take advantage of record corn and soybean markets. The regional power utility, Alliant Energy Corp., is ready to cofire 5 percent switchgrass with coal at its 726 megawatt Ottumwa (Iowa) Generating Station. However, the utility wants to buy a ready-to-fire switchgrass powder. That puts the ball back into the court of the nonprofit Prairie Lands Bio-products Inc., which was organized during the research phase to put together a business to contract with growers to transport and process switchgrass. Prairie Lands Biomass LLC is a skeleton business awaiting the completion of the feasibility study and business plan needed to raise the capital to launch on a commercial scale.

Each locale shapes the design of the biomass procurement system, giving each one a unique dimension. However, these common themes emerge when talking to project organizers:

› It is critical to engage farmers early in discussions with the end users so each party understands the issues faced by the other. In essence, they hold each other hostage: the farmer will have one market, and the biomass user will be dependent on a limited number of farmers within an economical trucking distance of the facility.

› Commoditization isn't likely to happen with biomass. Due to the sheer bulk involved, farmers aren't likely to be able to sidestep the local market and load their biomass on barges headed for export in the way corn and soybeans are handled. Thus, public forums for price discovery that exist for commodities like corn, soybeans and oil are not like to emerge for biomass.

› Quality discounts or premiums will likely be site specific. Tolerances for high moisture, weathering, mold and contaminants such as dirt may vary greatly depending on the technology used to convert the biomass into energy. For example, the tolerance for dirt in some cellulosic processes may be as low as 0.025 percent and high moisture switchgrass can increase grinding costs by nearly one-third.

› Biomass prices are going to vary greatly from region to region because a major component of the pricing structure will be the price needed to make the dedicated biomass crop competitive with alternative land uses in that specific region.

› Harvesting and transportation costs will vary depending on the existing infrastructure when the biomass crop system begins to develop-whether farmers have baling equipment or other harvesting systems that can be adapted. Each region will differ in the number of trucks and kinds of trailers available to haul the biomass, not to mention road limits which vary not only by state, but by individual highways.

› Conservation concerns will have a major impact, and are likely to be different depending on the specific ecosystem involved. The points where dedicated biomass crops and crop residue harvests interface with federal farm and conservation programs will require close attention.

Minnesota: Biomass for Heat
One of Joel Tallaksen's objectives as the biomass project coordinator for the University of Minnesota-Morris is to develop a tool box for others contemplating a biomass project.

UMM began construction last summer on an $8.9 million biomass gasification plant to heat nearly 1 million square feet of campus buildings. Future plans include adding absorption coolers to provide summer air conditioning as well as a steam turbine to generate electricity. The primary feedstock will be corn stover, although research projects are planned to investigate other feedstocks. Studies will also focus on ash properties, impact of residue removal on soils and more.

Heating the university campus is expected to take 8,000 to 10,000 tons of biomass per year, Tallaksen says, of which two-thirds have already been contracted for the first year.

Initial meetings were held last summer to contract a limited amount of biomass to be baled last fall for the gasifier's startup runs when construction is completed this summer. The university developed a request for proposals and asked farmers to bid the cost per ton they would need to deliver baled biomass throughout the year to the university. "I told them we don't want to make bad neighbors, and to let us know what they felt they needed," he says. The average bid for corn stover was $74 per ton delivered. The university also received lower cost bids for wood chips, which they included in the feedstock mix to bring the overall average cost for biomass to $54 per ton. In order to collect and evaluate biomass from as many suppliers as possible, the maximum tonnage accepted from any one producer was 400 tons. "One well-organized supplier could potentially supply UMM's entire need," Tallaksen says. "But to maintain the community nature of the project it was also important to have multiple biomass producers involved." Exploring different biomass handling systems, developing quality standards and testing protocols are all part of the research design as the project goes forward.

Tennessee: Biomass for Ethanol
The University of Tennessee is another university deeply involved in developing a biomass system. After several years of work on switchgrass production practices, this year the Tennessee Biofuels Project began gearing up to enroll 8,000 acres to fuel a 5 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant being built in cooperation with Mascoma Corp. Tennessee granted $40.7 million for building the demonstration-scale plant, which will include on-going research capabilities. The state also provided $8.5 million for farmer incentives to plant switchgrass.

Based on the economic analysis done in earlier research, UT established a price of $450 per acre which amortizes the switchgrass establishment costs over the three years of the contract, says Burt English, UT professor of agricultural economics. After a round of meetings planned by his colleague, Clark Garland, UT senior agricultural economist, the researchers chose 16 farmers from the nearly 40, who expressed interest in signing contracts. Most of the 725 acres signed up for the first year are coming from cropland, he adds, although a few are currently in pasture or hay. The land will be used this fall for trials designed to establish switchgrass in existing grassland. The second round of contracts will be solicited this summer for 2,000 more acres, which will allow more hayland and grassland to be enrolled since the contracts will be awarded in time for fall field preparation. By the third year, the goal is to reach the full 8,000 acres of switchgrass. "The reason we aren't planting 8,000 acres the first year is because there is a lack of seed," English adds. He says the contracts are rather complex, and include a fuel-charge index which will adjust the contract price up or down depending on the price of tractor fuel in October of each year.

The first switchgrass harvest this fall is expected to yield 2 dry tons per acre, which is about one-third of its full potential of 7 dry tons per acre. Harvesting and storage methods are being studied this winter, comparing square and round bales that are both tarped and left uncovered, as well as being set on the ground, on gravel and on pallets. Another system being investigated is the encasement of bales in plastic tubes that can hold up to 30 bales and protect them from weathering, English says. Next year, researchers want to experiment with the cotton module harvest system, which transformed the cotton harvest in the 1970s. Special wagons are used to transfer cotton from the picker working its way through the field to a module builder parked on the field's edge. The load of cotton is dumped over the top of the module builder which has a hydraulic tamper traveling along the top edge to compress the fluffy cotton bolls into a solid bale that measures about 8-feet-wide, 8-feet-tall and 30-feet-long. When it's full, the back door of the module builder is opened, the side walls lift up on wheels, and a tractor pulls the machine away from the bale. The bale is left sitting on the ground and is covered with a tarp if it's going to be left in the field for any length of time. When the gin needs more supplies, a module truck backs up to the huge bale. The truck bed tilts to slide under the leading edge of the cotton bale and the live bottom on the truck bed helps to draw the bale onto the truck as it backs up. Loading the approximately 30,000-pound-bale of cotton takes just a few minutes and the truck can travel at highway speeds to the cotton gin. Such a system, if it can be modified to successfully compact switchgrass, promises to greatly reduce the handling costs associated with square or round bales.

English sees a number of issues that have yet to be worked out-how large of a contingency supply will be needed above a one-year supply for the biorefinery, whether to store on farm or in a centralized location, and if bales are stored in a central location who takes ownership of the biomass. He believes because of the size of the farms and the availability of equipment in this area of Tennessee, farmers will be harvesting and stacking their own switchgrass bales, although they may not be loading the trucks.

Iowa: Biomass for Cofiring
The Iowa switchgrass project is further along than most with over a decade of research. "There's a big difference between feasibility studies and commercialization, and there's a difference between taking a crop residue and developing a dedicated energy crop," says Bill Beldon, who organized a group of farmers in the early stages of the Iowa project and is now the consulting manager for Prairie Lands, the nonprofit farm group that is organizing a switchgrass procurement and processing system to supply Alliant Energy's Ottumwa generating station. A core group of 30, out of originally 40 farmers, are still involved in the project, which is looking to raise about $150,000 to pay for a final feasibility study and business plan for the biomass harvest system. The group estimates it will cost $7 million to $8 million to launch the project-an exact amount will be determined in the business plan.

To support the research phase, the farmer cooperators seeded 5,000 to 6,000 acres to switchgrass, although only about 3,200 acres were harvested in any one year because the grass was planted on marginal land with environmental and wildlife sensitivity. To go commercial, Prairie Lands estimates it will have to expand that acreage 10-fold or more to supply the 200,000 tons of switchgrass that Alliant will require each year. They've lost ground, however, as some of the switchgrass was broken up to seed row crops. Other land has changed hands since the program began, and the new owners are not involved. On the positive side, the Natural Resource Conservation Service is enrolling biomass acres in the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, signing up 2,000 acres last year, Belden reports. The program involves a cost-share for establishment and allows harvesting for biomass.

Belden says that the deeper he digs into commercializing a large-scale project, the more questions he has about the details. "There's value just in getting those questions down on paper," he adds.

Susanne Retka Schill is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 738-4962.