Boone County farmers included in federal biomass initiative

Monday, June 20, 2011 | 8:54 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Wanted: Farmers interested in growing the next generation of biofuels.

Tens of millions of dollars in federal subsidies are available for farmers willing to grow biomass, such as grasses, forbs, legumes and trees, that can be converted into pellets and burned in power plants to produce electricity.


What is the Biomass Crop Assistance Program?

Farmers enter into an agreement to grow an energy crop and sell it to a conversion facility, which may pelletize the biomass or convert it into a liquid or gas.

What is biomass?

Biomass is organic material, such as grasses, forbs, legumes and trees, that contains stored energy from the sun.

Is Boone County eligible for the program?

Boone County is eligible in MFA Oil Biomass' project to grow miscanthis giganteus. It is also included in a project area managed by Show Me Energy Cooperative in Centerview to grow a polyculture of grasses, forbs and legumes.

How much does this program cost?

Federal subsidies for the MFA Oil Biomass project in Missouri will amount to about $9.5 million and $125 million for the the Show Me Energy project.

How are the farmers compensated?

Producers can receive 75 percent cost-share for growing an energy crop and an annual rental payment based on soil productivity. In Boone County, rental payments would total $96 per acre, Viers said.

What can be grown?

Eligible crops include switchgrass, miscanthus, woody poplar, jatropha, algae, energy cane, camelina and pongamia.

Who can enroll?

To be eligible, you must be a landowner within the project area with land that is agricultural or non-industrial private forestland and are not enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program or Grassland Reserve program.

Missouri is included in three of the five biomass crop project areas in the nation, according to a previous Missourian article.

MFA Oil Biomass is targeting about 8,250 acres in project areas around Columbia and Aurora in southern Missouri to grow miscanthis giganteus, a large perennial Asian grass.

Boone County is also included in a project area managed by Show Me Energy Cooperative in Centerview that totals 20,000 acres in 39 counties.

Gerald Hrdina, conservation program specialist with the Farm Service Agency, said the MFA Oil Biomass application process, which opened on Monday, had no applicants on the first day. Show Me Energy had about 150 applicants since the process started on May 16, Hrdina said.

Kim Viers, county executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Boone County, said producers must apply to their county Farm Services Agency office, which will inspect the land to determine eligibility.

“We will develop a conservation plan of operation, which tells them when they need to plant, what they need to plant, that sort of thing,” Viers said.

The city is in the process of evaluating biomass, said Jim Windsor, manager of rates and fiscal planning for the Columbia Water and Light Department.

The city has been mixing in wood with the coal it uses at the Municipal Power Plant, and Windsor said the city would consider purchasing additional biomass if it is competitively priced and if the power plant can accommodate it.

A basic rule of thumb is that one ton of biomass is equal to one megawatt hour, said Steve Flick, president of the board of directors for Show Me Energy. Columbia used more than 1.185 million megawatt hours in 2010.

Vice Provost for Economic Development Steve Wyatt said MU has gone to bid for more biomass, such as pelletized grasses or wood chips because its power plant is replacing a coal-boiler with a biomass-boiler. The new boiler will need 100,000 tons of biomass annually, compared to the 6,000 tons it uses now, according to a previous Missourian article.

“The reality is there will be more and more from biomass,” Wyatt said. “It appears to be a pretty good situation for farmers and for their communities.”

What is the Biomass Crop Assistance Program?

The biomass initiative is part of the 2008 Farm Bill designed to encourage growth of biomass for heat, electricity or liquid biofuels, Viers said.

Farmers enter into an agreement to establish annual or perennial crops for five years, or woody biomass for 15 years. They can sell the crop to the project area’s conversion facility, which may pelletize the biomass or convert it into a liquid or gas.

“We need to figure out how to seek out alternative fuel sources, and this is one way to do that,” Viers said. “It will be very interesting to see the benefits down the road helping establish these acres, how it will help local communities and how we can better provide our energy.”

How are farmers compensated?

Bioenergy facilities are not paid directly, but crop production is subsidized, Viers said.

Producers can receive 75 percent cost-share for establishing an energy crop, which includes preparing the land for planting and buying seeds and fertilizers. In addition, farmers are paid an annual rental payment for five years based on soil productivity. She also said rental payments would total $96 per acre in Boone County.

Producers can also receive a matching payment of up to $45 per dry ton upon delivery to the project’s bioenergy facility. While this payment is in the legislation,  Viers said this portion of the program is currently unfunded.

What can be grown?

The program is aimed at energy crops, including switchgrass, miscanthus, woody poplar, jatropha, algae, energy cane, camelina and pongamia.

The Show Me Energy project is a polyculture, which means big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, Illinois bundleflower and purple prairie clover grow together on the same plot, Flick said. 

These crops can be grown on inaccessible or unproductive land, and farmers can continue to graze livestock on the grasses, Flick said.

These polycultures typically are better for wildlife and do better with variations in growing conditions and on marginal lands because the different types of plants excel in different settings, said superintendent of MU’s Bradford Research Farm Tim Reinbott, who has been studying mixed stands of grasses, forbs, legumes and miscanthus, which grows by itself.

Miscanthus, the plant MFA plans to use, can produce 10 to 12 dry tons per acre, about three times more than mixed stands. It is more hostile to wildlife, and the non-native plant could spread with a heavy rain, Reinbott said. He also thinks the research does not show it can produce as well on marginal fields.

"We have been researching miscanthus for the last three, wet summers. If we were to have a normal or dry summer, it might not do as well," Reinbott said. "I'm not sure they have it all figured out with miscanthus."

The major consideration with biomass is transportation costs, the energy used to process the biomass and what land is being converted to grow the crop, Reinbott said.

How much does this program cost?

Federal subsidies for the MFA Oil Biomass project in Missouri will amount to about $9.5 million, and the Show Me Energy project will cost the federal government about $125 million, Hrdina said.

It costs more to grow miscanthus than the other grasses, but the Show Me Energy project covers 11,750 acres more, Hrdina said.

Who can enroll?

To be eligible, you must be a landowner within the project area with land that is:

  • Agricultural or non-industrial private forestland.
  • Not federal or state-owned.
  • Not native sod.
  • Not enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program or Grassland Reserve program.

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Allan Sharrock June 21, 2011 | 12:28 p.m.

The program pays $96 a acre when cash rent is bring 135-200 or more per acre. CRP payments are arounf $120. Both mean the farmer does not have to work. Here they will have to harvest it. Not sure how this will work out.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 21, 2011 | 1:10 p.m.

20,000 acres, even of miscanthus, can only run a 20 MW or so power plant. By the time they get to their first harvest, normal electrical usage growth will have eaten that plus more.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 21, 2011 | 4:47 p.m.

Should we forget, while "biomass" may sound sexy you are still dealing with fuel combustion, meaning the creation of carbon dioxide as a combustion product.

Wind, solar, hydro, nuclear and geothermal do not employ fuel combustion to produce electricity.

I'd like to see a table of caloric values (that is, how much heat is produced per unit of weight or volume of each fuel) for various "biofuels" versus the same data for liquid petroleum, natural gas and coal.

Fuels for combustion having lesser caloric value can pose problems: either it takes substantially more fuel to achieve the needed calories or in some cases there aren't enough calories available to do the job.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 21, 2011 | 6:23 p.m.

Just from memory, most cellulose biofuels (dry, ready to burn material) are in the range of 6,000 BTU/lb, while coal is from 8,000 to 14,000, oil (meaning gasoline or diesel fuel) is around 22,000, and gas is about 25,000 (all HHV).

We see why we use fossil fuels when possible. The world actually has a great deal of experience with using biofuels for energy. Most of this experience was gained before the industrial revolution, and we see how little biofuel is used today.

It's actually as or more efficient to heat with a good woodstove (80% efficiency or higher) than it is to burn the wood in a boiler, make electricity, and use that to run a heat pump. The woodstove is also a lot less complex than the generator/heat pump energy conversion. The tradeoff is local air quality.


(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 2, 2011 | 3:07 a.m.

Ellis I think Co2 is created when those plants biodegrade. Not sure of the relationship quantities though. But if it is close then I would say it is worth it. Plus when biofuels are burned they do not have harmful chemicals and can be applied to fields or roads with little environment impact compared to coal.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 2, 2011 | 6:26 a.m.

Carbon dioxide IS created when plants biodegrade. That's elementary plant science.

But if the plants aren't grown (as a crop), would their biodegradation even be a consideration?

Agricultural waste from growing FOOD crops also creates carbon dioxide, upon biodegradion of field waste. Food crops are not optional.

I have no problem with all this, as long as we aren't fooling ourselves. As I've said before, primary consideration needs to be a fuel's CALORIC CONTENT, the heat actually generated per unit of the fuel consumed. If the caloric content is lower than for presently-used fossil fuels then more of the fuel must be burned to achieve a result, meaning more carbon dioxide will be generated. That situation is known as chasing one's tail.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 2, 2011 | 10:43 a.m.

Ah but the plants while they are growing are taking CO2 out of the air. So if you had to burn twice as much as coal at least this method takes out some CO2 and produces O2 prior to being burned. Not to mention that if native grasses are the ones that are burned they provide great wildlife habitat.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 2, 2011 | 12:24 p.m.

As I said, and will continue to say, I have no problem as long as we aren't fooling ourselves.

My understanding is that such a fuel is the basis for MU's future power generation requirements. The curators have approved funding.

The curators, at the same meeting, approved and funded a very different system for MS&T that creates no carbon dioxide, requires no growing of crops (subsidized or not), no transportation costs to bring in fuel, and no concerns about ash disposal from burned fuel.

Why not do the same at MU? I doubt the system could work there; the energy requirements at MU are much higher.

These matters are seldom all "THIS" or all "THAT." People who suppose that's the case are seriously fooling themselves.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 2, 2011 | 3:54 p.m.

Allan: Native grasses DO make good wildlife habitat provided (1) they are not a monoculture and (2) they are not cut. If the grasses are monoculture, then they are the same kind of habitat as corn or milo which are, after all, grasses also. They DO provide habitat until they are cut, after which all you have is something similar to a cut wheat field.

I'm going to watch developments in this closely. Mainly, I want to see what kind of input costs, especially fertilizer, are imputed. I'm STILL saying that when you move biomass from one plot of soil to another, you also move certain soil nutrients that HAVE to be replaced.

Here's some typical numbers from a few crops. The data are in "pounds of nutrient removed per ton of dry hay".

Alfalfa: Nitrogen, 60; P2O5, 15; K20, 60; Calcium 28, Mg, 5; Sulfer 5

Cool Season Grass: Nitrogen, 45; P2O5, 12; K20, 50; Calcium 10, Mg, 4.5; Sulfer, 4.5

Warm Season Grass: Nitrogen, 35; P2O5, 10; K20, 35; Calcium 10, Mg, 5; Sulfer 3.5

And these nutrients are only the macro ones; the micronutrients like boron, selenium, chloride, iron, manganese, sodium, chromium, etc., all have to be replaced, too.

If you don't believe all this, simply ask why (1) tobacco growers in the early US abandoned fields after only 3-4 years, and (2) why more and more rainforest is cut down each year?

As for the carbon recycling, yes....6 carbon atoms are fixed for every 1 glucose made. For every 1 glucose burned, 6 carbon atoms are released (as CO2). Biomass is carbon neutral as far as the biochemistry is concerned.

Pop Quiz: Where is most of the carbon in the world sequestered?

(1) Air
(2) Coal, peat, nat gas, oil, etc. (i.e., cumbustable fuels)
(3) Soil
(4) Limestone
(5) Plants, dead or alive
(5) Waters of the world.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 3, 2011 | 3:40 a.m.

This has nothing directly to do with "biofuels" but it definitely has to do with the convoluted state of electrical energy production, both present and future.

1- France derives 80% of its electrical requirements from nuclear power production (the highest percentage - by far - in the world).

2- Sarkozy and Co. recently reaffirmed that France will continue this practice and plans to build something like 20 more reactors.

3- Germany BUYS electricity from France, and will presumably continue to do so. That is not unusual: WE BUY ELECTRICITY FROM CANADA and have for a long time.

4- Germany is now committed to phasing out nuclear energy production, in something like 10 years. What the media have lost sight of is that Germany was already committed to the phase out, but on something like a 20 year basis. Germany has long regarded nuclear energy as "transitional," which seems to me a wise policy. This also indicates that when you are transitioning sources you should have a "bridge" source. Things may not go as smoothly as planned.

Does any one see irony in the above? If both countries keep on their present courses we will shift nuclear power production west of the Rhine River, but not end nuclear power production.

Another interesting situation. Folks in this country complain about coal, while we
export coal. Revenues have been a bright spot in our dismal balance of trade. (Who receives the coal, and how is it used?)

There's a cognate: we are also a serious exporter of tobacco products. :(

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 3, 2011 | 5:41 a.m.

Ellis Smith wrote:

"This also indicates that when you are transitioning sources you should have a "bridge" source. Things may not go as smoothly as planned."

Their transition source will be natural gas (from Russia). Since Russia has been known to cut customers off for political reasons, I would hope Germany would have some plans (a strategic reserve, perhaps) for dealing with that.

Actually, since Germany doesn't have a lot of hydro, they will continue to need a good bit of natural gas to fill in the valleys of wind and solar production. Somehow I'm not seeing this in the positive light that others do.


(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 7, 2011 | 6:53 a.m.

Micheal I am going to guess and this is a guess with no google the plants make up the most carbon.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 7, 2011 | 8:07 a.m.

Didn't see this before - I'd say limestone.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 7, 2011 | 9:27 a.m.

Allan/Mark: Limestone is the largest carbon sink in the world. Calcium carbonate (CaCO3) may only be 12% carbon, but there's one helluva lot of limestone.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 7, 2011 | 10:45 a.m.

Let's have another quiz.

If we sample the atmosphere and do not do so in the immediate vicinity of exhaust from a combustion operation, an analysis is apt to show this percentage of carbon dioxide:

1) Less than 1%.

2) About 5%.

3) About 10%.

4) About 20%.

Also, what element forms the greatest portion of air, far more than all other elements or compounds combined? Is the element, properly processed, of commercial value?

To hear some people carry on, one would think air is mostly carbon dioxide.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire July 7, 2011 | 10:52 a.m.

Oh I see you are now trying to make a point to the retarded children who might actually listen to you.

If one one hundredth of one percent of your atmosphere was cyanide, would that also be insignificant?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 7, 2011 | 11:05 a.m.

Ellis: Less than 1%


Has commercial value if you reduce it.

I'll take my prize in $20's, please.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 7, 2011 | 11:16 a.m.

The fact that concentration of an ingredient in a mixture is minor does not necessarily limit its effects. That's Chemistry 101, which you've no doubt taken.

For an answer to the question about nitrogen, Google "Haber."

There may be cyanide in our atmosphere in trace amounts, as there is with some inert gases; cyanide exists in quantity in the atmosphere of at least one other planet.

And remember:


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 7, 2011 | 4:24 p.m.

@ Michael Williams:

Your prize is five $20 bills of Miner Money. Miner money can be spent at the cafeteria, book store or coffee bar in Havner Center, MS&T's new student center.

Parking, at the east end of Havner Center, is free. Turn and look to the east and you can admire our present coal/wood chip power plant, c.1945. Please do not attempt to park in any of our parking garages. Why? Because we don't have any.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 7, 2011 | 4:42 p.m.

I'll take it ONLY if I can spend it in the braille section of the......

Otherwise, you have my permission to give the cash to your city fathers towards construction of a new parking garage.

You need one.

A really, really tall one.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 8, 2011 | 6:42 a.m.

@Michael Williams:

I've contacted John F. Carney III* (MS&T Chancellor) and William S. Jenks III* (Mayor of Rolla, Missouri) in connection with your generous offer.

The reply was the same in both cases: each entity has a "laundry list" of things they feel are needed, but parking garages aren't on those lists.

*-There seems to be a current penchant for Roman numerals.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 8, 2011 | 8:25 a.m.

Ok, Ellis. Michael Williams XLVII is disappointed there will be no tax deduction.

(Report Comment)

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