Project looks to create green agriculture economy in Bootheel

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SIKESTON, Mo. -- A Sikeston organization will take part in the development of Missouri Delta AgBioworks, designed to research and help facilitate the growth and processing of bio-based products to replace fossil feedstocks, as well as other materials made with fossil fuels, the Sikeston Standard Democrat reported.

"Our chamber was recently approached about this project," said Missy Marshall, executive director of the Sikeston Area Chamber of Commerce, which will be the umbrella organization for the process. Those involved in the formation of the group envision expanding the crops grown in the Bootheel as ways to provide power and be building blocks for other items.

Coordinated by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, the regional strategy for bio-based products in the Mississippi Delta pertains to 98 counties in the Mid-South Mississippi Delta Region.

Recently, a meeting brought together those in the agriculture, academic and related fields to inform the individuals of the idea and get them on board.

"This is just the first step of a process," said Marshall.

Three key players in the process spoke about different aspects of a future AgBioworks Initiative locally. There were: David Madison, executive director of the Pemiscot County Port Authority; Rob Myers, director of programs for the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in Columbia, Mo.; and Randy Powell, a consultant with Memphis Bioworks Foundation and BioDimensions Inc.

"Biomass is our forte here," said Madison. It is the primary renewable resource in the region.

He noted that biomass isn't just about fuel, but also plastic and other items produced with petroleum and fossil fuels.

Opportunities abound with the program, Madison said. For instance, studies by Battelle, an international science and technology enterprise, suggest that sustainably grown and harvested crops in the region can supply at least an $8 billion local green industry without affecting the food and feed-supply chain.

"The region has all the required assets," said Madison. Those include diverse agricultural production, industrial assets and superior logistics. It also has the opportunity to enter high-value bio-based product segments including cosmetics and personal care, green chemistry and plastics and biomaterials.

As with any planned projects, there is a vision and several goals for the Missouri Delta AgBioworks. They include: make it a central focal point for developing bioeconomy projects in the region; organizing the supply chain between seeds, research farms, farmers, processors and markets; bringing investment capital/leveraging public resources; supporting business development and promotion; and helping bio-based businesses grow, according to Madison.

Myers gave those in attendance "a flavor of some of the things available."

Myers talked about what alternate crops can be adapted to grow in the region, which crops have profit potential, the markets, whether new processing in the region can be developed, and any barriers.

Some of those crops are canola, sunflower, camelina, flax and types of grass.

"These can be petroleum substitutes," said Myers. He noted that the vegetable oil market continues to grow, and canola is used increasingly worldwide for biofuel.

Myers gave projections for yields, prices, oil weight and possible uses for the meal remaining after oil removal for each. "With bioproducts, you have to sell every part of the product, not just the oil," he said.

Camelina is now coming into the scene in the United States, where it has never been used as a food. "The government likes it because you don't have the food vs. fuel debate," said Myers.

Additionally flax is starting to resurface since it fell off the scene after the petroleum industry developed. That's in part due to the omega-3 fatty acids it contains.

Possible uses for Miscanthus and switchgrass were also discussed. Myers said it can be grown to make ethanol or other types of bioenergy.

With several of the crops, especially the bulky grasses, it's difficult to transport long distances to a processing facility. That means more economic growth for the region.

Finally, Powell wrapped up the session by talking about the "petrochemical economy" in which we live, and the new partnership between agriculture and industry to create bioworks.

He noted that while oil, gas and coal take 200 million years to renew, algae only takes one month and agricultural crops take three months to a year.

"The easy -- and cheap -- oil is about gone," he said. "What's going to happen when fossil fuels run out?"

Oil will likely be the first to run out, in the next three to four decades, said Powell. "So we've got to decide what's going to replace it," he said. As it becomes more difficult and costly to obtain remaining oil, it's important to move as quickly as possible.

Powell said the four near-term bioprocessing opportunities for the region are: solid fuels for co-firing, new sugar crops, lignocellulose demo plants and new oilseeds and crushers. The future transportation fuels and electricity will come from other sources, and chemicals and materials will come increasingly from biomass, he said.

"Our region is so well-positioned to be a major player in so many different regards," he said, noting he is ready to see farmers add some of the alternate crops to their rotations.

"We're going to be able to revitalize rural industrial processes and over decades we're going to see a rebuilding in industry and jobs in our region," said Powell.

This will support the formation of 25,000 green and related jobs in the Delta states within a decade and 50,000 by 2030, Battelle projects, and the bioeconomy will open up markets for new crops, which will increase biodiversity in the region, leading to reduced use of synthetic fertilizers, agricultural chemicals and water, while increasing options for local farmers.

"The bioeconomy will contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increased air quality, providing sustainable raw materials for local industries and bolstering national security," the Battelle report concluded.

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