By STEVE EVERLY
The Kansas City Star
A farmers’ cooperative near Warrensburg, Mo., could help decide the fate of President Barack Obama’s plans to produce more cellulosic-based biofuels to curb oil imports.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to announce today that the Show Me Energy Cooperative will get the first grant in a federal program to determine whether U.S. farmers are interested in growing large quantities of switchgrass or other such energy crops.
The Obama administration wants U.S. farmers to harvest enough cellulosic crops to produce 16 billion gallons of ethanol a year. That would displace about 7 percent of gasoline supplies and help hold down fuel prices.
In an interview with The Star, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the country needs to move quickly to meet that goal. The Missouri cooperative was picked in part, he said, because it already encourages farmers to provide alternative crops.
“This is vital,” he said. “It’s essential to show that this is going to work.”
Show-Me Energy will get $15 million. The money will help farmers in 38 counties in Missouri and Kansas cover some costs of planting seed that will grow into perennial crops to be used as feedstock for ethanol. Switchgrass needs more than a year to get established.
Initially, 20,000 acres will be planted. Eventually as many as 50,000 acres will be used, to show that switchgrass can be harvested on a commercial scale, said Steve Flick, board president of Show Me Energy.
Johnson, Cass, Henry, Pettis and Lafayette counties in Missouri and Miami and Linn counties in Kansas are expected to have the most acres devoted to energy crops. Acreage in Clay, Platte, Wyandotte and Johnson counties in the Kansas City area will be smaller.
To participate, farmers will not have to be members of the cooperative.
Most ethanol used today is made with corn, a practice often criticized for possibly causing higher food prices.
Flick said he’s optimistic that the farmers growing switchgrass will be successful in part because it can be grown on land not suitable for food crops. Also, younger farmers are especially excited about raising energy crops.
There are challenges, including generations-old farm practices that devote grass just for grazing animals or to making hay. Interest in alternative crops could also be dimmed by high prices for other commodities, including corn.
“We feel the pressure,” Flick said. “But this is a way to capture our energy future.”
Pilot cellulosic ethanol plants are already operating, and in the next couple of years larger ones are expected. But increasingly the biggest concern is providing the massive amounts of feedstock needed.
A 50-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant would need 2,000 tons of switchgrass a day, which would take up to 200 acres to grow.
“Unless you have feedstock, you have nothing,” said Flick.
In 2007, Show Me Energy began making pellets out of corn stalks, sawdust and switchgrass that were sold as fuel for home heating or to utilities to produce electricity. The cooperative’s vision was to diversify the agricultural economy and improve farmer incomes.
Vilsack said increasing amounts of energy crops and the economic benefit of having bio-refineries dotting the landscape provide “an opportunity to reshape the rural economy.”
A shadow on that outlook is just how much federal help will be available. Fiscal 2011 funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which is providing the grant to the Show Me cooperative, was slashed from more than $400 million to $112 million. There are doubts that the program will even exist next year.
ICM Inc., which is building a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant in St. Joseph, had counted on the program to get more farmers to grow cellulosic crops.
Greg Krissek, director of government affairs for ICM, said the demise of the federal program would make things much tougher.