Chesapeake Quarterly
Barley to Biofuel
Can a commodity crop turn a
profit while helping to clean the Bay?

ACROSS THE TRAIN TRACKS, at the far end of town, more than 200 people cluster in a dusty parking lot, near a blue and white tent specially set up for the occasion. Their business suits seem out of place in economically depressed Hopewell, Virginia but the dazzling sunlight of the cool, clear fall morning projects promise and opportunity.

The crowd has gathered to witness the groundbreaking of a new biofuel plant, just off the Appomattox River, a tributary of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. This plant will use barley to produce ethanol, and it's the first of its kind in the United States.

barley field by Victor Szalvay
Barley grows year round and helps remove excess nitrogen from the soil. It's also a prime choice as a feedstock for biofuel in the Chesapeake region. Credits: Victor Szalvay and barley stalk (above, right) by Thomas Voekler.

Barley is a winter crop that's planted in rotation with corn and soybean, during a time when fields would otherwise lie fallow. It requires much less nitrogen fertilizer than corn, commonly used in ethanol production, and it helps to anchor the soil in the winter, guarding against nutrient-laden runoff to vulnerable waterways. When worked into the crop rotation scheme, planting barley would make it impossible for farmers to plant corn in successive years, further limiting the impact of that more heavily fertilized crop in the Chesapeake landscape.

Currently, there's not much of a market for barley in the Mid-Atlantic states. And without promise of profit, there's little incentive for farmers to begin planting it. Can the planned biofuel plant entice farmers to turn the Chesapeake into a hotspot for barley production? If so, will barley grown as a commodity for profit still yield a net benefit for water quality in the Bay?

If We Build It ...

Osage Bio Energy, the Virginia-based company building the new biofuel production facilities in Hopewell, is gambling on the "Field of Dreams effect." If they build the market, the barley will come. The new plant will have the capacity to produce 65 million gallons per year of ethanol, making it second in scale worldwide only to a plant in Salamanca, Spain. To operate, the plant will need 30 million bushels of barley a year, according to company spokesperson John Warren. Right now, production across all of the Mid-Atlantic states falls short by roughly an order of magnitude, he says.

To encourage farmers in the region to begin stepping up barley production to meet the demand of the plant in time for its planned opening in 2010, Osage Bio Energy and its partners have launched a "Barley Bin Builder Yield Contest." Farmers in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina are eligible to enter, with promises of cash prizes and a grand-prize truck for the highest barley yields per acre.

Farmers may still need additional convincing, says Frank Coale, the chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland and an expert in nutrient management and crop production. "A good farmer is a good businessman," he says. A fallow field in the winter doesn't cost him anything. The decision to plant a winter grain, by contrast, requires an investment of money and labor. In addition, planting a winter crop will limit the farmer's flexibility to plant corn that following summer, explains Coale. There needs to be a market advantage for planting barley to make it worthwhile for the farmer.

If Osage Bio Energy's predictions pan out, the growing market for ethanol will provide the necessary incentive to boost barley production on the farm. Part of the company's strategy is to sell diverse products derived from barley. Along with fuel-grade ethanol, the new plant will produce 151,700 tons of barley protein meal per year, a high-quality animal feed, and 44,600 fuel pellets made from barley fiber that can be used as renewable fuel. Additionally, the new plant will equip itself to take advantage of "second-generation" technology as it becomes available. So-called cellulosic ethanol production can use woody material and crop residue, such as barley straw, as biomass for ethanol production. Though the technology has not yet been fully developed, the Chesapeake region is poised to become a leader in this area.

Barley is considered a "generation 1.5" biofuel, explains Ann Swanson, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, who helped to lead the initiative to make the Bay region a leader in cellulosic biofuel production. It serves as an important stepping-stone toward cellulosic ethanol, seen as an ultimate goal for this region because woody materials, perennial grasses, and corn stover can provide clear benefits for nutrient reduction and improved water quality.

Cellulosic biofuel production requires a pretreatment process to make it possible to extract the sugar for fermentation. This stage of production faces technological obstacles, currently preventing cellulosic ethanol from being cost-competitive with grain ethanol.

Similar hurdles have already been tackled successfully in extracting sugar from barley, explains Kevin Hicks, a crop conversion scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. Barley has an abrasive hull which must be removed before conversion. It also contains compounds called beta-glucans, Hicks explains, which form a stiff gel when the grain is ground into a mash. Hicks' team had begun working on these problems in 2002, well before there even was a major biofuel industry. In collaboration with biotech company Genencorp, they've developed ways that use enzymes to reduce the stickiness of the beta-glucans, while increasing the ethanol yield. "No one has ever done this before," he says. "We are the first."

With these technological obstacles resolved, the mechanism of turning barley into biofuel should run smoothly. And if the market for barley expands as Osage Bio Energy hopes, the Chesapeake region could become a hotbed of production. What would such an expansion of barley acreage mean for the Bay?

Barley and the Bay

When barley is planted as a cover crop solely for the environmental benefits of removing excess nitrogen from the soil, it remains unfertilized and often unharvested. But if farmers begin planting fallow fields with barley to produce a harvestable crop, they'll also start fertilizing that crop to maximize yield. Will a fertilized barley crop undo the potential water quality benefits associated with getting a winter crop out in the fields?

Osage Bio Energy ground breaking by Erica Goldman
On a cool, crisp morning, Osage Bio Energy broke ground for a new barley-based ethanol plant in Hopewell, Virginia (above). Photograph by Erica Goldman.

The consensus seems to be that adding fertilized barley acreage to the region will still prove a net water quality benefit, even though no one can yet estimate by how much. "Any time you have a growing crop out there in the winter that is receiving relatively little nutrient input, it's going to be positive," says University of Maryland's Coale. "The bottom line," agrees Chesapeake Bay Commission's Swanson, "is that this will mean that at all points during the year, there will be plants taking up nitrogen in the soil versus no plants, where the only option for that nitrogen is to become mobile and run off those fields as rainwater."

Think about the big picture, says Osage Bio Energy's Warren. The region currently grows barley as an unfertilized cover crop on roughly 10 percent of its farms. If only those 10 percent of farms switched to growing barley as a fertilized commodity crop, then yes, the total nutrient input to the system would go up. But the demand of the new biofuel plant will necessitate a tenfold expansion of total barley acreage — to some 300 million acres, he says. This would almost certainly result in a large net reduction of mobile nitrogen overall.

While experts feel that the predicted increase in barley acreage in the region would prove a net positive for the Bay, there are no hard numbers to support this. The Bay Program's model is not equipped to run these scenarios and there are no field data available, says Coale. "What would be absolutely beautiful," he says, "would be if the ethanol company teamed up with grain growers organizations and Bay folks to generate this research."

Ultimately, if Osage Bio Energy can lean on scientific data to say that growing barley to produce a biofuel will also help clean up the Bay, it will do wonders to promote their "green" image and to capture the interest of the environmental community. Meanwhile, the company is continuing to reach out to farmers in the region, hoping to sell the idea that planting barley is worth the risk — that turning barley to biofuel will reward the investment of labor and money manyfold.

Erica Goldman

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March 2009
vol. 8, no. 1
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