The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 15, 2011

Southwest Missouri selected as site for biofuels project

JOPLIN, Mo. — Nearly a month after a tornado affected as many as 5,000 Joplin jobs, federal officials announced a biofuels project for Southwest Missouri that they said could lead to the creation of hundreds of new jobs in the region.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on Wednesday in a conference call announced the creation of two Biomass Crop Assistance Program areas in Missouri. The program will sign up farmers who are willing to grow a plant that can be rendered into alternative fuel.

“More American energy means more American jobs,” Blunt said.

The program will encourage the production and refinement of giant miscanthus, a sterile, warm-season grass that can be used to meet energy needs. Miscanthus is a volunteer crop, which means that once it is planted, it returns each year without being replanted.

Vilsack said it requires little attention from farmers, does not need fertilizer and grows on soil that is unfit for food crops.

The two project areas in Missouri will be organized around processing plants to be built in Columbia and Aurora. No timeline for building the plants was available Wednesday.

The Southwest Missouri site targets enrollment in 2011 of 5,250 acres in Barry, Christian, Dade, Jasper, Lawrence, Newton and Stone counties.

The sponsor for this project is MFA Oil Biomass, which will build the Aurora plant.

960 jobs forecast

In addition to the sites in Missouri, other project areas were announced Wednesday in Arkansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Growing and processing the grass into energy has the potential to create a total of 4,000 jobs, Vilsack said.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that 960 jobs will be created in Southwest Missouri counties. Blunt said an estimated 180 jobs would be created at the Aurora processing plant alone.

Blunt said the project could have benefits for other area industries. He said miscanthus in pellet form could be burned as an economical heat source for poultry farmers, reducing their cost and improving profits.

When asked if farmers might plant miscanthus instead of food crops, Blunt said that wouldn’t make good business sense.

“Food crops produce a higher profit, so a good farmer will grow food crops on good land and grow miscanthus on less productive land,” he said.

Dustin Dover, an MFA Oil Biomass scientist, said miscanthus was selected over other grasses because it does not spread; it produces much higher yields; and when processed into pellets, it produces 7,800 British thermal units per pound, which is comparable with wood. Dover said that unlike wood, miscanthus can be harvested every year.

Dover said Southwest Missouri was selected because it has a high percentage of marginal soil.

“For years, the most common crop in Southwest Missouri has been rocks,” he joked.

According to MFA, miscanthus is pest- and drought-resistant, and has been used as a source of heat and electricity in Europe for more than a decade. It can produce three times more fuel per acre than corn.

MFA currently has 250 acres of miscanthus planted in test fields near Lockwood and Golden City.

Vilsack said biofuel production has not caused an increase in crop prices; he said that 4 million to 5 million more acres of corn were planted this year than last. He considers the biofuel industry to be key to the nation’s economic growth.

Farmers who participate in the project are eligible for reimbursement of up to 75 percent of the cost of establishing the crop. They also are eligible to receive up to five years of annual payments.

Although the program’s funding may be a target for cuts as part of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, Blunt thinks the program is in line with conservative fiscal policy.

“It’s a small amount of money, just $20 million, and it creates jobs in the private sector,” he said.

The sign-up period for the project will begin Monday. The deadline for signing up will be announced at a later date.

Landowners who are interested in participating in the project are being encouraged to contact their local Farm Service Agency county office.

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