This year's corn harvest was one of the most challenging in recent memory, but it didn't stop nearly a dozen farmers with the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company from accomplishing what few others have dared.
For the second season in a row, they harvested corn cobs along with corn. The separated corn cobs will become biomass energy and help power the plant that turns their corn into ethanol.
"It's all a learning experience,'' said Chad Friese, commodity manager for Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, of the farmer cooperative's work in biomass energy development. "We're doing a lot of R and D.''
In the process, the company is also doing a lot for energy self-sufficiency, value-added agriculture and reducing the carbon footprint of producing ethanol.
Little is known about the economics and logistical challenges that come with biomass harvest on a commercial scale; Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company believes its work will provide real-world answers, according to Friese.
This year's rain-soaked and much delayed harvest was more than trying, he said, yet collecting cobs along with corn did not significantly slow its progress. Other factors -- such as the availability of commercial and on-farm drying for the corn -- were bigger determinants of an individual farmer's harvest pace.
Last year the cooperative's farmers harvested corn cobs on 3,172 acres. This year, corn cobs were gleaned from somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 acres.
Farmers participated at their own choice.
The company offered to buy corn cobs based on the BTUs of energy they can produce. It also worked with Vermeer to arrange for the equipment needed and provide other, technical assistance. Farmers took it from there, and were responsible for the extra fuel and equipment costs involved.
The Benson plant is a certified biomass conversion facility under the new farm bill. Farmers are eligible for matching federal funds through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program for their costs in harvesting, storing, and transporting the corn cobs.
The economics appear better than break-even, according to Friese.
Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company's work to develop a market and other infrastructure for biomass energy goes beyond corn cobs. Friese said they are also experimenting with a variety of locally grown energy feedstocks, including prairie grasses and switch grass. The corn cobs will be mixed with wood chips when fed to the gasifier.
If corn cobs were harvested on all of the corn acres devoted to the ethanol plant, they could provide 50 percent of the thermal power needed for its operations, according to a recent report by Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.
This year's corn harvest proved to be a bin buster, and the corn cobs followed suit. Friese said there was a correlation between increased corn yields and corn cob production.
This season's harvest gleaned somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 tons of corn cobs. At currently projected values, the corn cobs represent more than $600,000 kept for the local economy and not used to buy imported natural gas.