Tennessee group launches 25Farmer Network

By Susanne Retka Schill
AgBioworks, an initiative of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, has recruited a small group of farmers to participate in its new 25Farmer Network. The 25 chosen farmers will help to evaluate new opportunities in novel oilseed crops and new bioenergy crops by growing new crops, participating in value-added processing, and partnering with companies producing biofuels and biobased products.

"We realized very early that to launch any of these new projects, bringing in the farmers very early is the best way," explained Pete Nelson, director of AgBioworks. The organization held a series of public meetings this summer to explain the program and identify the "first mover farmers," he said. A total of 34 farmers applied, representing 60,000 acres of land. Among the "first movers" are farmers who have been involved in various value-added ventures in the past. "Our farmers are eager to see what will work with the land and equipment they have," Nelson said.

In the first year, the farmers will receive $500 per acre for up to five acres per farm to experiment with new crops. Nelson said they will be exploring two categories of alternative crops. The first category includes crops that are new to the region such as canola, sunflowers or switchgrass. "Typically, those crops already have companies backing them, and the barriers are transportation issues," Nelson said. Overcoming those barriers requires working out economical transportation to oilseed crushers, for example, or building new crushing facilities. Crops new to the region with viable markets are likely to grow from a few hundred acres in production to thousands of acres within a few short years, he added. The second category includes crops new to agriculture such as miscanthus, lesquerella and camelina, among several others.

Along with the payment for acres dedicated to field trials, the farmers will be asked to attend one national conference with AgBioworks representatives and three, one-day workshops during the winter. AgBioworks, in turn, will support the network with business development and leadership training, facilitate the development of new farmer-based businesses, and introduce network members to companies seeking agricultural products that can be grown in West Tennessee.