Central U.S. Is Home to Miscanthus Biomass Crop Projects

July 6, 2011

Various crops are being evaluated as biomass energy sources. One candidate is a grass called Miscanthus giganteus. Its prospects have received a modest boost with the announcement June 15, 2011, that the US Dept. of Agriculture is providing financial support for farmers to grow it in four project areas in four states. The goal is to substantially increase crop production of the grass, and USDA estimates about 4,000 jobs will be created.

Two companies are teaming up to act as lead sponsors for three of the four projects, and they have created a vertically integrated company they hope will succeed in taking the grass from crop to a range of energy products.

The combined company is:

It was formed by MFA Oil Company (founded in 1929) and Aloterra Energy (founded in 2010).

The counties where farmers can receive financial support from USDA are:

  • AR (Clay, Craighead, Greene, Jackson, Lawrence, Mississippi, Poinsett, and Randolph counties)
  • MO (Audrain, Barry, Boone, Callaway, Christian, Cole, Cooper, Dade, Howard, Jasper, Lawrence, Moniteau, Monroe, Newton, Randolph, and Stone counties)
  • OH (Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, and Trumbull counties)
  • PA (Crawford, Erie, and Mercer counties).

Farmers can now apply to their county USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) service center to participate. MFA Oil, which has about 40,000 co-op members, is putting out the word to its members, and has about 180 interested so far, Wilmes says. Non co-op members who hear about the project also can be candidates. All interested farmers still need to get FSA approval.

The goal is to plant about 13,000-14,000 acres the first year, Wilmes says. The longer-term goal is to plant about 150,000 acres in the three project areas being jointly sponsored by MFA and Aloterra. Aloterra alone is sponsoring the fourth area.

If selected, the farmers can receive up to 75% of the cost of getting the crop started, an annual payment for five years for growing the crop, and possible additional payment for two years for collecting, harvesting, storing, and transporting the crop to the processor.

USDA officials (Todd Atkinson, 202-720-5511; Kent Politsch, 202-720-7163) could not or would not provide information on how sizable the agency's financial support will be in the context of the final value of the crop. So it remains uncertain if the agency is providing 95% of the money needed to help get this niche industry going, or 5%, or something in between.

USDA published an Environmental Assessment for Miscanthus giganteus in May 2011. MFA Oil Biomass and Aloterra Energy had to produce the EA in order to be considered for project support from USDA.

Other companies that grow or make products derived from miscanthus can also write an EA specific to their proposed locations and apply for support from USDA, Atkinson says. There are other competitors that are getting started in this niche, but neither Atkinson nor Wilmes were willing to identify them.

One company that may be able to provide perspective on the miscanthus industry is:

Some of the positive attributes claimed for miscanthus grass are that it isn't a food crop, it can grow on relatively dry, barren lands, it doesn't need much fertilization, it is pest-resistant and noninvasive, and it contains a relatively high carbon content. For more information, see:

Of concern to some environmentalists is that miscanthus production and processing is a relatively inefficient and costly way to generate energy, especially in contrast to using wind and solar and measures to increase efficiency.

For a wide range of additional information on miscanthus, including numerous environmental and economic aspects and comparison to another biomass source, switchgrass, one source is:

These projects are being supported through USDA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program. In addition to the four Miscanthus project areas, USDA earlier selected 39 counties in KS and MO that are targeted for growing switchgrass, big bluestem, Illinois bundleflower, and purple prairie clover. For more information, see:

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