Mid-South bioenergy initiative could guard against drought impact

By Luke Geiver | July 31, 2012

Loretta Daniel believes that 20 years from now people in Kentucky and Tennessee will be working with new biomass energy crops, running biomass-based businesses and living in economically healthier farming communities. Daniel, the director for regional business and the innovation center at Murray State University in Kentucky, recently provided an update on the West Kentucky AgBioworks Initaitve to local and federal authorities. Through WKABW, Daniel and a team made of 21 schools and other organizations, work to develop the biomass and biofuels industry in the region to revitalize rural economies through job creation. The team tests new biomass energy crops and works to develop business strategies, partnerships and demonstration sites for biomass. The biobased initiative is a central part of MSU’s Innovation for Impact strategy, formed to spur on economic development in the Mid-South region.

“If this summer has taught us anything it is how important this can be for our farmers. Many of the crops we are testing thrive in drought conditions so if our farmers can have options and new crops that can supplement and help when traditional crops suffer,” she said, “our farmers will be strengthened.”

The WKABW initiative has four goals, according to Daniel. The first is to educate the region about the opportunity of biomass utilization, which includes a future curriculum on biomass at MSU. The second goal for the initiative is to establish a bioenergy demonstration center on the campus of MSU to show the complete supply and use chain related to biomass. The third goal, Daniel said, is to establish a west Kentucky farmer network of biomass crop growers. And fourth, the initiative aims to support business development. “This all ends with business development,” Daniel said of the overall AgBioworks initiative.

For Daniel, the biomass industry in the region offers an opportunity with limited potential. “Our farmers know how to grow things,” she said. “With our manufacturing knowledge and base (in agriculture) that is already established,” she added, “I see West Kentucky as the place in the country to build a biomass economy.” And building that economy will not only provide new financial revenues, but also economic stability she added.

To date, 12 farmers have participated in growing and harvesting energy crops in the region, and two seasons of sugar-based energy crops have been grown at MSU farms, led by Ceres and Betaseed Company. In the next year, Daniel hopes the initiative in West Kentucky will add more participants to the farmer network and a demonstration facility at MSU will be completed.