Pennsylvania seed company embraces biomass

By Matt Soberg | October 11, 2011

Calvin Ernst, owner and operator of Ernst Conservation Seeds, lives a biomass-related life every day. The Meadville, Pa.-based company was founded in 1965 and has expanded and now includes Ernst Biomass and a pellet manufacturing facility planned to be operational in November.

The company grows and harvests nearly 400 naturalized species of seeds, crops and agricultural supplies for various applications including wildlife habitat, wetland mitigation and Conservation Reserve Program initiatives. 

The Ernst operation, which resembles a typical grain farm, is national in scope with 8,345 acres on-site, 300 acres in Florida, and contracts with growers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland. The company has 65 full-time employees and includes marketing, sales, production and processing in addition to its harvest operations. “Ernst Conservation Seeds is the largest switchgrass seed producer east of the Mississippi,” says Dan Arnett, Ernst biomass manager.

Ernst researchers are trying to improve switchgrass characteristics to maximize the biomass output and quality through selective breeding and improved genetics. Certain lowland switchgrass species are best for biomass purposes, according to Ernst, because of their upright structure, aiding the ability to harvest it and increasing the amount of plant potential per square foot. 

As a fitting innovation, Calvin Ernst’s home has incorporated a 100,000 Btu per hour biomass boiler that uses wood and switchgrass pellets to produce thermal energy.

In addition to its well-established seed business, the company recognized the ability to use switchgrass for biomass fuel. “Thermal energy is one-third of the total nationwide energy usage, and whether we look at the economic, environmental or energy independence aspects, it makes sense to take advantage of the benefits of biomass,” Arnett said.

With a fully integrated computer system for full mechanical control, Arnett added that Ernst Biomass is the first facility creating switchgrass pellets with its proprietary technology and process, which is designed to make switchgrass pellets and hybrid pellets, using woody biomass in the mix. 

Once operational, Ernst Biomass projects it will have the ability to produce 25,000 tons of pellets annually and will sell them in 40-pound bags and bulk loads.