Long story short, the plant was never built. But the process ignited Rund’s interest in other ways of growing energy that might produce more energy per acre more efficiently than corn and on land poorly suited for row crop production. After researching biomass feedstocks, Rund saw the most promise for his Midwest grain operation in Miscanthus x giganteus (or Mxg for short), a large perennial grass hybrid of Miscanthus sinensis and Miscanthus sacchariflorus.
How did you get interested in growing energy crops? And, why Miscanthus?
Twenty minutes from my farm, University of Illinois researchers were studying energy crops. After visiting with them, it became clear that Miscanthus was my best option for producing biomass. It produces high yields on few inputs and it’s non-invasive. Miscanthus harvest runs from December through March, so it wouldn’t interfere with my other farming operations.
After running an economic analysis on Mxg production, however, I realized the harvesting costs were prohibitively high. I knew Europeans had grown this crop for years, so my son, Luis, and I traveled to Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland to find out how they were producing and utilizing this biomass crop.
We learned that little effort is taking place in Europe to convert biomass to liquid fuels. They simply burn it, replacing coal to generate heat and power. In Austria and Germany growers do not bale Miscanthus, but instead use silage choppers for harvest. Many stored this crop by simply dumping it on the ground at the end of the field. This made harvest and storage fast and inexpensive. The growers we visited used Miscanthus chips to heat their homes and livestock buildings, their schools, and even a district heating plant.
That meant replacing some of your corn and soybean acreage. How big was that gamble?
From what we learned in Europe, I was confident I could match the income from 200-bushel-per-acre corn at $5 a bushel by growing Mxg and selling it for $75 a ton. It can never replace corn as a feed crop, but it could replace corn as an energy crop. Nearly 40 years ago when I started farming, we grew wheat, oats, alfalfa, corn, and beans. Now we just plant corn and beans. Someday that may change again. A farmer I held great respect for once told me that land will always gravitate to the crop with the best return.
It’s true that establishing Mxg is expensive. To lower the cost, we planted 15 propagation acres last spring. From one acre planted with 16,000 plants, we can harvest enough rhizomes in two years to plant 50 to 60 plantation acres. We only had to sacrifice a few corn acres initially, providing us with two more years to obtain a clearer picture of how the biomass industry was developing before we made a larger financial commitment.
How have banks responded to your decision to innovate?
I can’t speak for all banks, but our bank is very interested in the possibility of an additional crop for farmers. What little money I borrowed for this project was to finance Mxg seedstock production and sale, for which a limited market could be identified. As we expand to plant more acres, more biomass markets will have to develop in order to obtain financing. It’s very risky to invest $1,000 an acre to plant something that you don’t have a market for yet.
So, the risk is clear. What’s the upside to growing biomass for energy?
All farmers have some land that’s less desirable, particularly near streams or waterways. If growers planted an energy crop on this type of land, they would not only produce biomass fuel and additional income, but they would also help the environment by creating grass strips that help keep excess fertilizer and herbicide out of the streams while providing a beneficial environment for wildlife.
Any pushback from others? Any of your neighbors think you’re crazy?
People don’t like things that are different. It’s the same way with growing a new crop. I try to preempt a little criticism by inviting people who have an interest in biomass energy to come out and look at what we are doing and offer suggestions. Some express concern that Miscanthus isn’t a native crop and we should be growing natives to produce biomass. To me that is like saying you can grow corn, but you have to use native Indian corn. Native grasses yield half of what Miscanthus does and would require twice the land for the same production.
We believe in change when research shows us it makes sense. Back to what my neighbors think, I can’t really say. But, one of my most conservative neighbors became very interested in our tall grass and he stops by often to talk about it.
What does the government need to do to help farmers grow biomass?
The government needs to support and expand the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) that provides incentives for producers to plant biomass crops. Billions are being spent to develop the technology to convert biomass to advanced fuels, but a mere $112 million remains in the BCAP program this year. I predict the day will come when we can efficiently make cellulosic fuels and have no biomass supplies to convert.
Any advice for industry?
I would like to see less emphasis placed on large advanced fuel power plants, and more support provided to single-dwelling and school-sized biomass heating projects with local producers providing the biomass. In Austria, these smaller biomass heating projects are more easily managed and financed, attracting more community support and offering a stronger market for producers.
What gives you confidence that biomass fuel has a future?
What we tend to forget in the Midwest is that we’ve been using biomass to generate heat and power for a long time in the United States—particularly in the East where they burn wood chips. The technology is there and proven. I’ve run the numbers and know I can produce more tons per acre per year with Miscanthus than I can with even the fastest-growing trees. That’s why it’s so hard to imagine the industry will go away completely. Biomass energy is being studied by many wise people. Billions of dollars have gone into research. This is definitely not a short-sighted venture.
Expertise: Has farmed for nearly 40 years. Grows seed corn, food-grade corn, and seed beans on 750 acres near Pesotum, Ill. Recently added energy biomass to his crop mix, growing Miscanthus x giganteus stock for New Energy Farms of Ontario, Canada.
Education: Attended the University of Illinois. Served five years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador managing a government-owned swine research farm.
Impact: Welcomes visitors from all over the world to his farm. Serves as an ambassador and resource for others interested in generating energy from biomass and exploring ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Food for thought: Barbecued 400 pounds of beef ribs on four 8-foot grills to entertain 200 visiting farmers and farm equipment dealers from Argentina. Another 50 Illinois farmers and neighbors rounded out the guest list.