Farmer Sings Praises of Switchgrass at Biomass Expo

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Don Nott of Huron County, Ontario, started out raising switchgrass for the biomass industry.

However, when the price of natural gas fell, it was no longer profitable and he had to find other uses for it.

Last year, he sold his entire crop for mushroom compost and now he’s working with a Toronto firm, WhiteCloud Innovations, which uses switchgrass to make particle board and similar composite materials.

“I love this crop,” Nott told attendees at the Northeast Biomass Heating Expo, held April 3-5, in Saratoga Springs. “It’s one of the most environmentally friendly crops there is. It returns phosphorous, nitrogen and potash to the soil. If I decide to switch crops I’ll have the best white beans and soybeans I’ve ever had.

“Plus, once it’s established, it’s chemical free. You don’t have to apply herbicides, so there’s no runoff into rivers and streams.”

More than 400 people from the U.S., Canada and several European countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Austria, were on hand for the event. Attendees visited several upstate New York facilities that heat with biomass, and the expo’s final day had a free public session where manufacturers showed off the latest technology to parties considering biomass as a heating option.

The event was hosted by the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Biomass Thermal Energy Council. Executive Director Joseph Seymour said Saratoga Springs was chosen for the second straight year because more than 3.2 million New York homes and businesses have no access to natural gas, a cheaper form of energy, and must rely on more expensive heating fuel instead.

New York uses more heating fuel than any other state, more than 1.6 billion gallons annually, almost three times as much as the 651 million gallons used in Pennsylvania, the second-highest Northeast user.

The council says that converting to biomass would create jobs and keep energy dollars from going overseas.

In addition to switchgrass, pellets and wood chips are also popular forms of biomass. The Northeast has vast woodlands and many forest products industries that could support this business.

“We’re here to create awareness,” Seymour said.

Given his situation, however, Nott said he’s better off selling switchgrass for purposes other than heating fuel. “The problem is the math,” he said.

He currently farms 2,000 acres, including 1,100 of his own. Of this, 440 acres is switchgrass.

Regardless of how they use it, Nott gave listeners valuable tips for raising this crop.

Instead of direct seed, which produces no initial return, he grows it with a cover crop such as spring wheat that can be sold for a profit in the first year. Wheat can be harvested without damaging the switchgrass.

When it comes to harvesting, Nott said he cuts the grass around Halloween time and lets it lay in the field all winter until April, when he flips it over and lets it dry before baling, which continues into late May.

By waiting until spring, the grass is drier and some nutrients leach back into the soil.

Switchgrass, when mixed with wood product and resin, makes an extremely durable fiberboard.

“Any agricultural fiber is stronger than wood,” Nott said. “This is where the new market for me is. I think it’s a huge market.”

He said it takes 27,000 acres of switchgrass to supply one mill and there are at least 10 major manufacturers in North America, and each one has several plants.

Nott said he raises 10,500 pounds of switchgrass per acre and that he makes five cents per pound profit. At 440 acres, that comes to $231,000.

Nott first got into the biomass business in 2006, after Hurricane Katrina drove natural gas prices sky high. Nott Farms is a large supplier of quality race horse oats.

After Katrina, Nott learned that Canadian greenhouses were burning oat pellets instead of gas to heat their facilities.

“We got into biomass in a hurry,” he said.

Oat pellets are made from the grain’s hull. However, Nott couldn’t raise enough to keep up with demand, so he wound up purchasing this byproduct from Quaker Oats.

Then he began raising switchgrass and is glad he did, because it’s a versatile crop that can be used for a variety of purposes, including animal bedding, mulch and landscape peat.

“It’s like a big sponge,” Nott said. “It soaks up moisture and holds it in the flower bed.”

That’s why he likes the crop, because it has so many different uses.

“When natural gas got so cheap it basically put us out of the fuel market,” Nott said. “I had to be fast on my feet. I had to find new markets.”

With fiberboard, he believes he’s found a perfect fit.

“It won’t replace the wood industry,” Nott said. “But this is how we’re going to grow.”

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