Growing plants for energy

Biomass is a promising emerging market in Ontario and farmers can learn more about growing and making money from these purpose-grown crops on a series of upcoming regional car tours. The Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) also showcased miscanthus (seen in the image at left) and switchgrass test plots at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show last week.

The plots are part of a larger research project in conjunction with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) that is evaluating the potential of biomass crops in Ontario, including establishing a business case and determining possible market opportunities.

Miscanthus, switchgrass and tall grass prairie are the most common biomass crops, with perennial miscanthus growing well in more productive soils and switchgrass, a more economical crop to grow, better suited to lower class land.

Ontario’s biomass opportunity began several years ago when the provincial government decided to phase-out coal-fired electricity. This sparked an interest amongst farmers in potentially providing biomass for electricity generation, such as large scale burning for Ontario Power Generation or small-scale home heating.

“As the OFA/OSCIA biomass project progressed, other possible uses for the crop have emerged,” says Heather Engbers, OSCIA’s Biomass Project Field Co-ordinator.

“Different markets have evolved as we have worked on this over the last few years. For example, some fruit and vegetable growers are using biomass as mulch for their berry, carrot or ginseng crops,” Engbers explains. “And there is a possible market for biomass as bedding for livestock, as it is price competitive with straw.”

Grant Martin is one farmer who has made the switch to biomass bedding for his livestock. He’s an organic dairy farmer who milks 65 cows in the Brussels area and he has been using switchgrass straw in place of conventional straw in his bedded pack barn for two years. It’s more consistent than regular straw since that crop can have more weeds in it, he says, and an added bonus for his operation is compatibility with organic production.

“One of the reasons we switched to using switchgrass straw is that it isn’t sprayed and I’m not even sure how much commercial fertilizer is used on it, if any, so it helps us meet our organic regulations,” he explains. “There’s hardly any difference where the cows are concerned and the cost is comparable to regular straw.”

Bioproducts are another emerging area that has the potential to develop into a significant market for Ontario biomass producers. Biomass can be used as a filler ingredient in plastics, for example, to replace petroleum-based ingredients in products like automobile panels and dashboard parts. It can also be used in place of wood chips to produce a high pressure fibre board.

In addition to the farm show, farmers will also have the chance to learn more about how to grow and market biomass crops on the Ontario Regional Biomass Tour this fall. OSCIA is hosting seven car tour days across the province to showcase different market opportunities and different points in the production chain. The free tours will include visits to growers, as well as processors and end users such as a cellulosic ethanol plant and a stove pellet manufacturer.

“At the farm show we will have four acres of plots, an acre each of two varieties of miscanthus and two varieties of switchgrass, in the tillage demonstration area of the farm show site,” says Engbers. “We’ll have OSCIA staff there, as well as growers who have experience with growing, using and marketing biomass crops.”

A total of 750 acres are currently part of on-farm biomass trials on 26 farms from the Ottawa Valley to Leamington, up the Bruce Peninsula and north to Sudbury and Rainy River. More information about biomass in Ontario, including bus tour dates and details can be found at www.ontariobiomass.org.

Note: Adapted from a longer article originally written for Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. Photo sourced from www.newenergyfarms.com.

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