Regional Farmers Harvesting Miscanthus

Thursday, May 7, 2015
Devon Bryant from Custom Harvesting in Jonesboro cuts miscanthus at the Nu-way fuel farm outside Rector on April 30. The Nu-way fuel farm represents 500 of the 2,000 acres Renew will harvest in Clay County. (TD photo Jessica Rainwater)

Miscanthus harvesting is underway in Clay County shortly after the biomass project changed hands from MFA Oil to Renew Biomass, a company based in Springfield, Mo.

What started out as an alternative to crude oil has become a solidifier and absorbency product. "With the price of gas as low as it is, it doesn't make sense to spend the kind of cash it takes to make biomass fuel at the moment," said Arkansas project manager Rudy Hufford. "But it's always a fallback."

Miscanthus was originally started as a combined effort between MFA Oil, the government and farmers in Missouri and Arkansas. The government and MFA Oil absorbed the majority of the cost in the beginning when the rhizomes were first being planted. Miscanthus isn't grown from seeds, but instead a root or rhizome is planted. The reason for assistance from the government was the price of the expensive rhizomes costing $5,000 an acre to plant. "That cost has come down to about $2,000 an acre, and will continue to go down," Hufford said. "After you plant miscanthus once the only real cost is harvesting, because it's an annual plant, meaning it comes up every year voluntarily."

At the time the project began five years ago the equipment to plant the rhizomes was shipped in from Europe where the plant has been grown for more than 25 years. There wasn't any equipment in America to handle root planting. The first year of growing miscanthus is fairly easy as there isn't any growing cost. "It is simply planted and allowed to grow," Hufford said.

In the first year of harvesting, which falls from December to April after a good frost makes the foliage drop, the plant is simply mowed. The second year the plant produces cane which is harvested, but the field is only producing half of its full capability. The third year miscanthus can yield anywhere from three to nine tons per acre, Hufford said.

"The cane is what you're after, that's where the cellulose is," Hufford said. Cellulose is what is turned into the biomass products, whether making bio-fuel or absorbent products. In Europe the plant is used to make pellets for heating stoves. In America pellets and biscuits are made for different kinds of factory absorbency uses, such as large spills or chicken house bedding. "They are coming up with more uses all the time," Hufford said.

Two years ago MFA Oil announced it would be building a multi-million dollar plant in or near Paragould, and Hufford says it is still in the works. However, the plan has changed somewhat. Instead of a bio-fuel plant, Renew is looking to build a $6 to $7 million grinding facility. To build a plant more acreage of miscanthus is needed in Arkansas.

"There are roughly 2,000 acres of miscanthus currently grown in Clay County," Hufford said. At this point the harvested miscanthus is hauled by truck to Springfield, where the cane is ground into flour and then formed into pellets or biscuits. As Renew has only recently taken over the project, many of the particulars are still being negotiated, and will take a time to work out, Hufford said.

In past years, harvesting equipment also had to be shipped in, but Massey Ferguson has jumped on the Biomass bandwagon and has designed and marketed its own version of miscanthus bailers and combines. The cane is harder than hay and heavier. "At first we used hay equipment to bail it, but it just didn't work," Hufford said. "The bails need to be over 1,000 pounds and hay bailers aren't set up to handle that kind of pressure." The new Massey combines made especially for miscanthus break up the cane into smaller pieces so "you can get a tighter, heavier bail," Hufford said.

At harvest a farmer can look to see $70 a ton return for miscanthus, meaning if a farmer harvested a field that produced nine tons an acre, he would see a return of $630 per acre.

Not only is miscanthus good for making products, bio-fuel and energy it is also great for conservation. The deep root aerates the ground, replenishing the soil and is wonderful wildlife habitat, Hufford said.

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