When an energy company began reaching out to farmers in northeast Ohio about growing grass for biofuels, it was a perfect opportunity for the Ashtabula County Farm Bureau to bring the community together.
“Farm Bureau kind of became the education catalyst,” said Farm Bureau organization director Ty Kellogg.
Aloterra Energy, located in Ashtabula County, had received USDA approval for funding to grow miscanthus grass on land in northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania as one of four Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) project areas.
The company looks to combine what it says are benefits of growing miscanthus as a renewable energy source with the BCAP incentives that encourage local farmers to grow a biomass crop.
According to Ohio State University Extension, giant miscanthus is a large warm-season grass and a new leading biomass crop in the United States. Experience in Europe suggests giant miscanthus will be productive over a wide geographic range in temperate regions, including marginal land. Trials across the country have demonstrated miscanthus can yield more than two times more biomass than traditional switchgrass varieties. Stands are expected to last 15 to 20 years, depending on management.
Under current guidelines, BCAP will reimburse farmers up to 75 percent of planting costs and pay an annual rent payment while farmers wait for their crops to mature. Once the crops mature, farmers will be eligible to receive two years of matching payments for their tonnage, up to $45 per ton beyond the selling price.
Aloterra Energy’s project area along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border has guaranteed BCAP funding for 5,344 acres in 2011, which will go to the first farmers to sign up in Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio and Crawford, Erie and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania. The deadline to sign up is Sept. 16.
“The public overall, they’ve been cautiously optimistic,” Kellogg said. “Farmers are considering the pros and cons and are asking if this can benefit them.”
So far, Farm Bureau’s role has been limited to education and advocacy for farmers and the community, according to Kellogg.
“Yes, we’re an agriculture organization but we also care about the local community and the economy,” he said.
Aloterra Energy hosted the Ashtabula County Farm Bureau’s annual Ice Cream and Strawberry Social at its farm in June. The event was an opportunity for visitors to view plantings of miscanthus. Ohio State University Extension office and the Soil and Water Conservation District representatives were also partners in the event.
Scott Coye-Huhn of Aloterra Energy said people are excited about the possibility to grow the grass, but they first want to see that it’s going to work.
“A lot of this has been education and community relations,” he said.
While there is “healthy skepticism,” Coye-Huhn said the local Farm Bureau has been a good partner in helping the community learn more about this opportunity, which could bring jobs to a region of the state that has seen its share of economic hardship.
“We’re very excited about what they’ve done to date and where they’re heading,” Kellogg said.
Photo credit: istockphoto.com