The Harvesting Life

Feedstock demand and economic opportunity are creating a new biomass job force.
By Luke Geiver | January 30, 2013

Eric Woodford knows his career choice wasn’t normal. In 2010, Woodford and his family moved from Redwood Falls, Minn., to Emmetsburg, Iowa to start a biomass handling equipment dealership with his wife. The basic tenet of the business, he says, was to provide specialized balers featuring a patented powered windguard for improved harvesting of corn cobs and stover, feedstock necessary for the cellulosic ethanol plant under development just a mile down the road.

“When you think about it,” he says, “who else do you know that has pulled up and moved their family for the cause of biomass?” Three years after giving up his 15-year custom harvesting and baling business in Minnesota, Woodford’s equipment shop is booming, and now his career move to the business of biomass harvesting for energy projects seems to make perfect sense. “I’m confident we will see strong machinery sales in 2013. The economy will support it,” he says.

Woodford isn’t the only example of someone willing to make a career move into agricultural residue-based biomass harvesting and handling, a fact that Woodford is happy about. In the Emmetsburg area alone, custom baling operations and custom feedstock transport driving units ranging from teams of two to teams of 20, are operating now or in formation.  In Nevada, Iowa, where DuPont is building a cellulosic ethanol plant, the same thing is happening. And soon, the area surrounding a Wisconsin ethanol facility that recently signed an agreement with an upstate New York cellulosic sugar developer, Sweetwater Energy, to colocate a feedstock flexible advanced biofuel production facility near the plant, will present the same opportunity for a new breed of custom harvesters, haulers and equipment dealers who can provide biomass for energy projects.

The grueling harvest schedule of 12 hour days, 6 days a week (or 7 in most cases) for a month or longer behind a baler-pulling tractor harvesting corn stover may not be for everyone, especially on a frozen November morning. And the time and investment needed for harvesting operations devoted to miscanthus grass in the spring or any other purpose-grown energy crop may not be either. But as Woodford and others have shown, the harvesting life is one of economic opportunity with a sustainable future.

Eliminating the Risk

Adam Wirt, regional biomass coordinator for Poet LLC, has led the efforts by the Poet-DSM advanced biofuel project in Iowa to help potential biomass harvesters understand what it will require. Not only has Wirt helped the team understand why the harvest goals have transitioned from pure corn cobs to a light stover mix of husks, leaves and cobs—it minimizes corn stalk removal and machine dirt intake—he has also helped develop the standard operating procedure for harvest.

This is how it works, according to Wirt. First, when the growers are harvesting their grain, they should run a stalk stomper or stalk roller on the corn heads to disrupt the stalk integrity as the combine moves. Second, the grower should also turn off the chopper and spreader on the back of the combine to avoid spreading the residue out over the field, producing, instead, a wind row of feedstock piled on top of the stomped stalks. The process removes roughly 20 to 25 percent of the residue in the field, or 1 bone dry ton of biomass per acre, according to Wirt. After the windrows are formed, balers are called in to collect the feedstock. The bales, either round or square, (Wirt says they take both), are loaded on an accumulator and placed at the driveway leading out of the field where the bales will stay until the grower’s scheduled pick-up date, which could be a week or several months later, a time discrepancy that helps Wirt explain the scope of the ordeal.

When potential harvesters or growers inquire about participating in Project Liberty, the advanced biofuel project in Emmetsburg, Wirt offers a comprehensive view of the project. “This is bigger than just harvesting biomass in the fall of the year,” he says of the endeavor. “This is a cellulosic ethanol facility that is going to consume material 365 days per year.”

Because of that, Wirt and his team have devised two strategies for growers and harvesters. Option one allows independent growers and harvesters to supply the feedstock directly to the facility, and option two, the custom model, means Poet-DSM will align the baling, staging and transportation for the grower.

“Each farmer is different and we are trying to find ways to make each farmer comfortable,” Wirt says. He anticipates, however, that a certain option will dominate the feedstock supply process. “Much like we see on the wheat run every year with a lot of custom harvesters combining grain, we believe in corn country we will see the direct opposite. A lot of farmers will harvest their crops, but they will look for somebody to custom bale it for them.”

The round-bale machinery designed for corn residue will cost roughly $45,000, and a new square baler will be $120,000.And, each harvester will have to figure out how to pick up and stage the bales at the field’s edge. “Most people are buying accumulators,” Wirt says. A towable unit will run around $15,000-30,000 and a self-powered unit will cost $150,000-200,000. And, a harvester will need a tractor.

Most importantly, Wirt wants potential harvesters to understand that they are building a business plan for the long term. As for compensation, Wirt says it all depends on who is sitting across the table from the harvester. If the grower retains responsibility of the feedstock supply, he will pay the harvester, but if Poet-DSM is contracted to handle it, Poet will provide the compensation.

The actual dollar amount each harvester will receive for their time and effort will be different for each case as well. In some cases, existing farming operations that depend on corn and soybean income, can run a harvesting business on the back-end, utilizing existing equipment like tractors or semi-trailers for harvest or transport, a scenario that might allow for a smaller compensation due to lowered operating costs and upfront investment.  In other cases, Wirt says, there are harvesters who have moved back to the region (remember Woodford) just to harvest ag residue.

Kyle Elbert did just that. In addition to helping his father run their farm a few days a year, Elbert has started a biomass harvesting and handling business that includes one baler bought from Woodford, and a couple of semi-trailers for transport. Elbert harvests hard in the fall and transports biomass year round.

 Elbert says it’s easy to enjoy his line of work. Like Woodford, he started in 2010, and his business has grown steadily since. He plans to purchase another baler and add to his staff of three. “A farmer will call me to say he’s in the field or just got done. After I get the call, I’ll head over to the field if it is ready and start to bale,” Elbert says. “I’ll leave the bales on the field edge until the farmer’s delivery date is up then I’ll take the bales to the facility.” Elbert’s situation is one Wirt is happy to see. Because the operation will run all-year, there is also a need for drivers such as Elbert.

Committed to the Culture

Arunas Chesonis, CEO at Sweetwater Energy, works out of Rochester, N.Y., but he’s committed to the emerging culture of ag residue harvest. He also exemplifies the potential opportunity for biomass harvesters. Before taking his current role, Chesonis was the lead angel investor in Sweetwater. And before that, he was part of a $1 billion company he helped build with the current executive team at Sweetwater. Wishful thinking aside, Chesonis hopes to sign seven or eight contracts in 2013 in addition to the Ace Ethanol contract the company formed earlier this year. Each contract would mean hiring harvesters to collect ag residue, woody biomass, energy sorghum or other suitable feedstocks.

Sweetwater is a partner with Denmark’s Biogasol, an advanced biofuel production company whose pilot plant, in operation today, will be the same size as Sweetwater’s commercial-scale facilities in North America. But that isn’t the most promising part about Sweetwater’s potential. Each facility will generate $7 million to $9 million in business each year.

Until that happens, the Woodford Equipment and the Kyle Elbert custom biomass harvesting operations will signify the opportunity in harvesting, and anyone considering a harvesting job should rest assured with Woodford around. He knows his stuff. Woodford not only sells equipment, he designs it. Before moving to Emmetsburg, Woodford designed, patented and licensed a powered windguard for balers to Vermeer Manufacturing. “Cornstalks want to tumble and tumble in front of a baler,” he explains, “but this device force-feeds the baler and makes everything in front of the baler go in, regardless of shape, size or texture.” Engineers at Vermeer knew about Woodford, and they knew there was no dealership like his in Emmetsburg, so Woodford says, “they [Vermeer] thought who better to train farmers and sell the technology than the guy that actually invented it.”

For harvesters like Elbert, it dramatically increases the number of tons they can harvest in a day, he says, something that has a huge impact on the bottom line. “The dollars that it costs them to harvest biomass goes down because they can do more in the course of a day. In certain circumstances I think you could say it would increase throughput 40 percent based on conditions,” he says.

Woodford likens the process of light corn stover baling to that used in hay country, a process that hasn’t been in practice by the vast majority in corn country for a few decades, he adds. Many harvesters in the region have been trained by Woodford and rely on his team as the experts about baling for a biobased energy project. If his progress or Elbert’s example don’t reveal why biomass harvesting can be a way of life, Wirt has something to say that might. “We want to make sure they [growers and harvesters] have a sustainable opportunity to be successful for many years, and at the same time, we grow the feedstock needs of the facility.”

Author: : Luke Geiver
Features Editor, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]