Missouri farmer turns farm waste into cleaner fuel

Monday, January 14, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Four years ago, seed company owner Steve Flick of Kingsville noticed he was spending a lot of time and money burning, burying or dumping the empty hulls left over from his grass seed.

It was a costly mess. And it gave him an idea.

"I think maybe I fell down the steps and got hit on the head," Flick said.

The idea was to use the excess material for energy. Flick decided to follow a method that is well-known in many European countries but at the time was nearly unheard of in the United States: turning prairie grass into fuel.

"I thought, we can do this here and do this better than anyplace in the world," he said.

Flick petitioned area farmers to form a co-op that could produce bails of "cellulosic" material such as switchgrass, cornstalks or out-of-condition hay. The bails could then be ground up and formed into inch-long pellets.

These pellets can be burned alongside coal to produce a cleaner, renewable form of energy. The grass material typically has high BTUs -- a measure of energy released when matter is burned -- but no nutritional value for livestock.

It also burns cleaner than coal, Flick said.

His idea has turned into a movement.

In about a month, Montreal-based Evergreen Biofuels Inc. will open a $6.5 million plant in Centerview, Mo., capable of producing 100,000 pounds of biomass pellets every year.

Four hundred farmers in western Missouri and eastern Kansas have signed on to contribute to the Show Me Energy Cooperative billed by Flick as the "first producer-owned biomass cooperative in the U.S." The co-op will supply the raw materials for the pellets.

When it begins production, the pellet fuel plant will be one of the largest in North America and capable of heating 20,000 homes and businesses.

"It's not real fancy, and it's not real pretty, but one thing we do want it to be is real profitable," Flick said.

Experts say Flick's program presents an exciting alternative for farmers who have ground where standard crops cannot survive.

"It's a fantastic idea because these perennial crops require no tillage or anything after establishment, and they create a wonderful root structure," said William Casady, a bioenergy and cropping systems engineer with the University of Missouri Extension. "These crops will grow on these marginal soils and help protect them."

Chuck Grimes sells grass seed mixtures to farmers interested in getting some production out of their "marginal soil" from his home in Hennessey, Okla. He said many farmers have wrongly given up on pieces of land that can easily be transformed into grass wildlife habitat and harvested once a year and sold to a co-op.

"When it comes to conservation and renewable energy, you can't separate the two," he said. "This is a hand-in-glove deal with the conservationists." The valuable grasses on these lands, he said, "were there before we came along, the good Lord designed it. We're just now picking it up and pushing it."

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