Initiative to diversify oilseed production

The Tennessee soybean producer of today could be the Tennessee oilseed producer of tomorrow if an initiative to diversify west Tennessee agriculture is successful.

The idea behind the Tennessee Oilseed Diversification Program, initiated by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation in conjunction with Frazier Barnes and Associates, is to identify high-value oilseed crops that can be produced in Tennessee, and to develop a plan to get them processed locally into bio-based products such as biodiesel.

It will take a special effort to pull together new processing technologies, willing investors and new oilseed crops. In fact, it will be a lot like starting from scratch.

“Not a single soybean processing plant operating in the United States today was designed to run multiple crops,” said Pete Moss, a bioenergy consultant with Frazier Barnes Associates, during the New Crops Field Tour held at the Agricenter International in Memphis. “What we need are plants designed to process different crops. That can be easily done if you design the plant from the front end knowing that.”

Another big step is already under way. Research plots of various oilseeds are growing at Agricenter this summer.

“This is an excellent location,” Moss said. “The Agricenter is well-suited to try these different crops. We’re going to look at different varieties of oilseeds, get them produced and do the necessary analysis to make sure the yields and the characteristics are there.”

Here’s a list of possible candidates, according to Moss.

Canola — It has roughly twice the oil content of a soybean and is a very good candidate for biobased products and biodiesel.

Camelina — It’s a small-seeded crop, but it grows on very marginal soil. Characteristics are ideal for biodiesel because it works at very low temperatures. Soybean oil tends to gel around 32 degrees, animal fat around 50 degrees. Camilena gels at close to 0 degrees.

Castor — Studies haven’t revealed a lot about how this crop may work out. But it is included in the Agricenter test plots.

Jatropha — It’s a big name in the biodiesel industry right now, although Moss is not sure it can be grown in the United States. There are some issues with the meal product.

Sunflowers — Has a very high oil yield and good biodiesel characteristics.

High erucic acid rapeseed — Popular crop in Europe. Has good characteristics for biobased products, and Moss believes it can be grown in west Tennessee.

Soybeans –Moss says breeding companies need to breed more soybeans with higher oil content.

Moss stresses that the diversity initiative is not about getting farmers to not grow soybeans. “We want to see diversified crops. Ultimately, we want to grow crops that add more value back to the farmers and meet the market’s needs.”

Diversification could also help the biodiesel industry regain some financial stability. Moss noted that an original goal of the biodiesel industry was to raise the price of soybeans to farmers. It has worked all too well — to the tune of $12 soybeans. “The price of soybean oil has gone so high that’s it’s not economical to make biodiesel out of it. So we need alternatives. We need energy security.”

Producers attending the seminar at the Agricenter ranged from farmers interested in producing alternative crops to those looking for investment opportunities.

Brent Brasher, a farmer from Charleston, Miss., who is on the steering committee for Memphis Bioworks Foundation, produces 500 acres of kenaf, which can be used as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock. His biggest market for kenaf is in the oilfield industry. “Kenaf produces two different products, the bast fiber and the core fiber. Currently, we’re using kenaf for animal bedding products, while the fibers are going in horticulture.”

Terry Turner, an instructor at Phillips Community College in Arkansas, is a former farmer who is developing a curriculum to educate those wanting to get into the bioenergy industry. “We’re focused primarily on biodiesel right now, but I’d like to expand our focus to bioenergy in general. A plant has just opened up in DeWitt, Ark.

When asked about the future for bioenergy, Turner noted, “We have some work to do on biomass. But I think the job opportunities are going to be great. In the area we’re in, it’s biomass. Fifty years from now, no telling what we’re going to be putting in our vehicles.”

Sumesh Arora, with the Mississippi Technology Alliance, in Ridgeland, Miss., said his company’s role is to help commercialize new technologies. “We work with startup companies and try to get them hooked up with investors.”

The MTA has created a program called the Strategic Biomass Initiative which has already funded 14 projects ranging from $35,000 to $250,000, spread out among the private and academic sectors. “We are working with the Memphis Bioworks Foundation to craft regional strategy for the growth of the ag bio sector.

“This is a very early stage economy,” Arora said of bioenergy technologies. “One of the problems with an early stage technology is that you have a lot of winners and probably even more losers. As people develop these technologies, not all of them are going to work. But until we go through the exercise, we can’t find the technologies that are going to help us with our future energy needs.”

Tennessee grows more than a million acres of soybeans every year, producing about 34 million bushels of soybeans, which equates to 40 million to 50 million gallons of oil. “Unfortunately, we don’t process anything in Tennessee,” Moss said. “We want farmers to not only grow the crops, but get invested in the processing as well.”

Having a diversity of supply could help temper energy costs as well, Moss said. “We are so tied down to one or two types of energy that if anything happens to one of those supplies, the price goes way up. That’s why we need multiple sources of energy.”

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