With the increased focus, over the past several years, on growing crops for the bioenergy sector, producers who opted to pursue this market may now be seeing crops, such as perennial grasses or woody crops, reach full maturity. But they may have yet to develop a reliable, stable market for these crops. Perennial grasses and woody biomass crops such as shrub willow, poplar or eucalyptus take several years to establish, and may require specific equipment for harvesting, leaving a farmer with a negative return on their investment if he hasn’t developed a viable market.
While these crops are useable for energy production, the energy sector may not be the most readily accessible market for many farmers. Alternative markets do exist, may be easier and more cost-effective to access immediately. These might serve as a stop-gap measure until the biorefinery industry catches up with the amount of bioenergy crops available.
Evelyn Thomchik, Penn State Smeal College of Business and Penn State Extension Educator Sarah Wurzbacher addressed the issue of markets for biomass during a webinar for the Northeast Woody / Warm-Season Biomass Consortium.
The market for woody biomass and warm season grasses is diverse, with opportunities for direct sales to end users on the local level, they emphasized. These marketing opportunities, which are simpler and more readily developed by local growers, can be fertile grounds for developing cooperative relationships among producers.
These local direct-sales markets “allow producers to become more familiar with management and marketing of these crops,” and they can then be prepared when more lucrative marketing opportunities develop, Wurzbacher said.
Thomchik explained that buyers of biomass crops can be divided into different “tiers,” with Tier 1 being those who need raw materials, and Tier 2 representing the sector that requires refined biomass products. Tier 3 represents industrial users of refined biomass products, while Tier 4 are those who produce products made from refined biomass materials. Biomass industrial end-products include consumer goods such as carpet, paint, plastics, rubber mats and more.
One industry which may provide an increase in demand for biomass is the oil and gas industry. Biomass pellets are highly absorbent, and can be used to absorb drill cutting wastes, as well as to solidify fracking waste sludge. Such waste is more readily disposed of as a solid product rather than a liquid waste product. Switchgrass has been successfully used in this application, Wurzbacher said. This sector may be more accessible in some regions than others, but should be a growing market.
“For the average producer, accessing some of these higher-tier markets can be difficult,” Wurzbacher explained, recommending that they “focus on possibilities in lower-tier markets.”
In all tiers, there are energy and non-energy sector uses for biomass crops. Bio-heat and bio-power, and biofuel for transportation are all energy uses, while the non-energy sectors include not only the plastics and fertilzer industries, but also bio-pharmaceuticals and those making dyes and pigments. In the lower tiers, the buyers for raw or slightly processed biocrops can be found locally.
Local energy applications, such as school or hospitals using biofuels for heat, as well as non-energy markets, are accessible for both woody and grass biomasss growers, Wurzbacher said. Some locally-based non-energy markets for raw materials include mushroom growers who like the material for cultivation needs, livestock operations needing bedding, landscapers seeking mulch or erosion control materials, and pulp or paper mills.
One local energy market is The Pennsylvania Fuels for Schools program, which promotes biomass heating systems in public schools. Because of ash issues with grass combustion, this type of market is more accessible for woody biomass growers. Wood-fired boilers have saved some schools $89,000/year on heating costs, so they are eager to purchase wood products for combustion.
“It’s great for everybody. Take a product, like a wood chip, and directly market if for combustion,” Wurzbacher said.
Use for livestock bedding
Absorbency is a key factor in livestock bedding. Ironically, as the market for woody biomass for heating is increasing, the price of woody biomass used for bedding applications is rising, forcing farmers to seek alternatives. Grassy biomass has been proven beneficial in livestock barns, where keeping moisture content low can prevent many disease issues.
Pennsylvania dairy farmer Steve Harnish received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to fund a study to produce his own miscanthus grass to use as a bedding materials for his compost bedded pack barn. Previously using wood shavings or sawdust, Harnish sought to compare those with chopped miscanthus grass bedding.
“The shavings are a byproduct of woodworking operations and require significant hauling expense to reach most farms. In recent years the emergence of wood pellets as a heating source has increased the price and reduced the availability of wood shavings, especially in winter months. I propose that locally-grown Miscanthus canes could replace much of the sawdust and shavings currently trucked to dairy farms,” Harnish wrote in his SARE project abstract.
Once the miscanthus grass (miscanthus x giganteus) was established enough to harvest and utilize, Harnish performed a side-by-side study in the dairy barn. He found the mischanthus bedding to be more absorbent, with five percent less moisture than the wood shavings. In addition, the miscanthus bedding was warmer, another benefit to animal health.
While Harnish established, maintained and harvested his own biomass crop, not all farmers are ready or willing to do so. Locally-grown perennial grasses for bedding use has already become a thriving market in the United Kingdom as well as Canada, particularly on horse farms, Wurzbacher said.
Studies have also been done using chopped switchgrass as a poultry bedding. Chickens raised in houses with switchgrass were found to have less foot pad dermatitis than when on wood shavings. This is due to the increased moisture absorbing qualities of the grass compared to the wood product.
Using switchgrass bedding may be an easy, cost-effective way for poultry farmers to get more value from the birds. Thus, switchgrass growers can develop a market based on this value-added ability.
Wurzbacher emphasized that one important aspect of these biomass products is their living value. These crops not only have value after harvesting, but have value in the field.
Perennial grasses growing in the field are being used to absorb nitrates from livestock operations, such as large hog operations, decreasing runoff concerns. The grasses also provide erosion protection. The extensive roots system on native warm-season grasses are also valuable for capturing soil nutrients and building soil structure.
The biomass crops can also provide wildlife habitat. Land planted to native grasses is valuable from a wildlife standpoint, and can be planted on hunting land and harvested after hunting season, providing living value as well as a harvested crop.
“They provide a lot of services while they are actually living in the ground,” Wurzbacher said of biomass crops.
As new markets for biomass crops develop, and larger energy markets catch-up with the supply of biomass crops, producers will have more options. Wurzbacher urges growers to explore “what the local options are, and what the needs are in those local markets,” and to consider factors such as equipment, labor and ease of transport when planning for biomass crops.