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Wetlands & Streambanks

January 9, 2008 | The Columbia Daily Tribune
by T.J. Greaney of the Tribune's staff

(click to access news site)

Four years ago, seed company owner Steve Flick of Kingsville noticed he
was spending a lot of time and money burning, burying or dumping the
empty hulls left over from his grass seed. He said it was a costly
mess, and it gave him an idea.
"I think maybe I fell down the steps and got hit on the head," Flick said.

The idea was to use the excess material for energy. Flick decided to
follow a method that is well-known in many European countries but at
the time was nearly unheard of in the United States: turning prairie
grass into fuel.

"I thought, we can do this here and do this better than anyplace in the
world," he said.

Flick petitioned area farmers to form a co-op that could produce bails
of "cellulosic" material such as switch grass, cornstalks or
out-of-condition hay. The bails could then be ground up and formed into
inch-long pellets.

These pellets can be burned alongside coal to produce a cleaner,
renewable form of energy. The grass material typically has high BTU’s -
a measure of energy released when matter is burned - but no nutritional
value for livestock.

It also burns cleaner than coal, Flick said, for a simple reason. "The
carbon dioxide released in here was created last summer, the carbon
dioxide released in coal was created three million years ago," he said.

That idea has turned into a movement. In about a month, Montreal-based
Evergreen Biofuels Inc. will open a $6.5 million plant in Centerview
capable of producing 100,000 pounds of biomass pellets every year. Four
hundred farmers in western Missouri and eastern Kansas have signed on
to contribute to the Show Me Energy Cooperative billed by Flick as the
"first producer-owned biomass cooperative in the U.S." The co-op will
supply the raw materials for the pellets.

When it begins production, the pellet fuel plant will be one of the
largest in North America and capable of heating 20,000 homes and
businesses. "It’s not real fancy, and it’s not real pretty, but one
thing we do want it to be is real profitable," Flick said.

Flick, a University of Missouri graduate, spoke yesterday to about 300
other farmers at the Heart of America and Mid-Missouri Grazing
Conference at the Holiday Inn Select in Columbia. His program, said
experts, presents an exciting alternative for farmers who have ground
where standard crops can’t survive.

"It’s a fantastic idea because these perennial crops require no tillage
or anything after establishment, and they create a wonderful root
structure," said William Casady, a bioenergy and cropping systems
engineer with the University of Missouri Extension. "These crops will
grow on these marginal soils and help protect them."

Chuck Grimes sells grass seed mixtures to farmers interested in getting
some production out of their "marginal soil" from his home in
Hennessey, Okla. He said many farmers have wrongly given up on pieces
of land that can easily be transformed into grass wildlife habitat and
harvested once a year and sold to a co-op.

"When it comes to conservation and renewable energy, you can’t separate
the two," he said. "This is a hand-in-glove deal with the
conservationists." The valuable grasses on these lands, he said, "were
there before we came along, the good Lord designed it. We’re just now
picking it up and pushing it."