Steve Flick believes biomass production will be the next avenue of opportunity for forage producers. In addition to growing high-quality livestock feed, they'll plant crops that produce maximum amounts of kilowatts or Btus per acre.

“They're already doing it in England,” he says.

Members of a new biomass cooperative Flick heads may eventually grow crops specifically for fuel production. Initially, though, Show Me Energy Cooperative, Centerview, MO, will process corn and grain sorghum stover, straw and low-quality hay.

“We'll turn products that aren't worth very much into fuel,” he says.

In April, when phase 1 of the co-op's $21 million processing plant is complete, it will begin manufacturing fuel pellets for the fast-growing pellet-stove industry. In the first year, 20 million pounds of pellets will be produced, offsetting shortages of pellets made from sawdust.

“Our research has shown that approximately 80,000 pellet stoves went without any fuel two years ago because of the unavailability of pellets,” says Flick. “We feel our product, which is renewable every year, can fill that market void very quickly.”

Pellets will also be delivered bulk to Kansas City-area power plants to be burned with coal to generate electricity.

He says the intricate pelletizing process will produce a top-quality product with more Btus per pound than sawdust pellets. Much of the technology came from Scandinavian countries where it's used extensively.

“Most of Europe is approximately 20 years ahead of us in this type of replication process,” according to Flick.

The processing plant's second phase will add a cellulosic ethanol plant that produces at least 8 million gallons of ethanol a year from the same crops. Scheduled for completion early next year, it will double the facility's crop input requirement. In phase 3, hydrogen generated as a byproduct of ethanol production will be used to generate electricity for the plant.

The idea for the co-op was born about five years ago, when Flick and a group of farmers met to discuss the potential for processing agricultural biomass into marketable products. The initial plan was to make fuel pellets from seed hulls and waste paper, but those pellets were too high in ash to be burned in power plants. So research began on pelletizing fibrous crops and crop residues.

University of Missouri ag engineers developed the pellets, and Missouri Enterprise, a consulting firm, helped with the feasibility study and marketing plan.

Nineteen farmers are involved in the project so far, including a five-member board of directors, and Flick is president. Other farmers can join the effort during an equity drive in January and February.

“Individuals interested in investing in the co-op should contact Show Me Energy in the first week of January for a schedule of investment meetings and investment eligibility requirements,” says Flick.

He foresees no problem getting 600 or so farmers to sign up.

“We're confident all types of producers, from the big wheat straw farmers to the small Missouri cow-calf producers, will be investors,” he says.

Most will be located within 100 miles of the plant. They'll bring in stover, straw and low-quality hay, mostly in round bales, and will be paid a delivered price based on its Btu content. Flick figures prices will range from $25 to $50/ton.

Most of the hay will be grasses, but some off-quality alfalfa also will be purchased. When alfalfa gets rained on, its feed value drops but its Btu value increases, according to Flick.

The processing plant will be the first of its kind in the U.S. But if the co-op succeeds as expected, he predicts that similar plants will spring up in other parts of the country.

“We want to show that this can be replicated anywhere in the U.S. by other farmer groups,” he says.