New uses for old crops

New uses for old crops

| Eucalyptus, sugar cane and other crops get an agritechnology makeover |

In Frostproof, Phillip Rucks Nursery is growing half a million Eucalyptus trees. Although Eucalyptus trees currently are marketed for garden mulch, the fast-growing hardwood is poised for a potential broad new market — as biomass for an electricity-generating facility.

In the Lake Placid area, London-based British Petroleum is cultivating 1,700 acres of high-fiber/low-sugar sugar cane as well as Elephant grass in preparation for “one of the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels facilities,” company officials say. They are expecting to plant 2,000 more acres this fall in advance of the 36-million gallon plant.

Nearby in Highlands County, Riverview-based United States Envirofuels is growing 1,000 acres of sugar cane seed. The company plans to plant more seed cane this fall in anticipation of a commercial sugar cane crop during fall next year. The company plans to construct a bio-refinery at the southwest corner of U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 70 and there use sugar cane and sweet sorghum residual fiber, or bagasse, to produce ethanol that can be blended with gasoline.

As the United States seeks independence from fossil fuels, Florida farmers have been finding new uses for old crops such as Eucalyptus and sugar. Growers also have been evaluating other potential crops as well, including algae. “We are eager to get a good understanding of what has potential and how much potential,” says Patrick Sheehan, director of Florida’s Office of Energy in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We’re very much in the info-gathering stage.” The goal is a “diverse portfolio of energy supply,” rather than “reliance on imported fossil fuels,” Sheehan says. The Energy Office has overseen a portfolio of more than $200 million over the last several years, including stimulus federal programs, he adds.

One company that is also in the “info-gathering stage” when it comes to Eucalyptus is The Mosaic Company, a producer and marketer of concentrated phosphate and potash, two of the primary nutrients required to help grow food. Tom Pospichal, land utilization manager for the Mosaic extension in Bowling Green, Florida, currently is experimenting with 25 acres of Eucalyptus, which has been planted partly on reclaimed land and partly on clay-settling areas. “At Mosaic, we’re always looking at ways to expand agriculture from these types of soils,” says Pospichal. He is optimistic because the first five acres, planted three years ago, has thrived in this setting.

In Central Florida, officials from U.S. EcoGen Polk are hoping to begin construction in the first quarter of 2013 on its 1,163-acre Fort Meade site along U.S. Highway 17, which is former phosphate land, says Paul Quinn, vice president of project development for Jupiter’s U.S. EcoGen. The facility would be operational in early 2015, he says. Company officials are already having discussions with larger farm groups about growing Eucalyptus, he adds. Ideally, it would be grown within 50 to 55 miles from the plant. Mark McDuff, senior business development manager with the Central Florida Development Council, a private-public economic development organization in Auburndale, says development officials are very excited about the project. “It’s going to be a home run as I see it for the county and the community.”

“You don’t need a lot of fertilizer (for Eucalyptus). It doesn’t need the irrigation a normal annual crop or biannual crop would need,” Quinn says. “You cut it down and it re-grows from the stump.” Pospichal agrees that the Eucalyptus crop has fairly low input costs, which is one of the reasons it was chosen as an alternative crop experiment on Mosaic property. “It is fast-growing (about 15 feet per year), which means it takes only about three to five years to become a 45- to 50-foot tree, and it has diverse options for potential use,” he adds.

In addition to mulch, Eucalyptus has been used as lumber, for essential oil that acts as a decongestant, and to make high-quality paper, among other uses. Phillip Rucks Nursery is growing a specially cultivated variety from the University of Florida that can supply Eucalyptus to those who want to grow it for the Fort Meade plant. “It’s a little bit of a gamble here and there, as all ag is,” says Bob Bogart, Rucks’ nursery manager. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Some countries like Brazil are using Eucalyptus and pelletizing and shipping it.”

Meanwhile, BP has a long-term lease for 20,000 crop acres with Lykes Brothers for the project in Okeechobee, spread between Lake Placid and Okeechobee. The opening date for BP Biofuels-Highlands is undetermined, says Mike Milicevic, the project’s ag operations manager. BP is using a sugar cane variety basically cast aside as a sugar crop because of its lower sugar content, says Milicevic. Its vigorous growing abilities made it suitable for cross breeding. Growers found Elephant grass too expensive to plant for forage. Using both crops will allow BP to harvest year-round, Milicevic points out. For now, it is a “huge research farm.” Committees are evaluating everything “to make it safer and more efficient.”

The Highlands EnviroFuels project is targeted for a groundbreaking in the second quarter of next year, and “assuming that we are fully financed and break ground next year,” the facility could open toward the end of 2014, says Bradley Krohn, project manager. “Our sugar cane is a dedicated bioenergy crop,” Krohn says.

Highlands EnviroFuels plans to use essentially the same process as Brazil to develop ethanol, but adapt it to Florida’s environmental regulations. Cane and sweet sorghum are to be bought predominantly from growers within a 40-mile, preferably a 20-mile, radius of the plant. Transportation costs make buying from farther away prohibitive. Sweet sorghum previously has been used for cattle feed; its sugar content is similar to sugar cane.

“We like sorghum because it is a tough crop — needs less water than maize and sugarcane, and less fertilizer than maize, does well in the heat, can withstand the winds if you have plants with a good root system,” says Dr. Wilfred Vermerris, an associate professor at UF in Microbiology and Cell Science. “It is propagated via seed, so it’s pretty easy to get started, and it establishes quickly (three to four months; unlike sugarcane, which takes more than a year).” Growing a different crop next year is no problem, because sorghum is an annual crop.

Research is continuing on growing algae, commonly part of fish food, for biofuel. Algae needs sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to grow. “They need water that contains nitrate and phosphates, dirty water,” says George Philippidis, associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Chemical and BioMedical Engineering Department in Lakeland. Florida’s warm climate allows it to be grown year-round, yielding a lot of algae mass per acre, he says. It could be grown in shallow ponds dedicated for algae, and fat could be used to make diesel and aviation fuel and other hydrocarbons.

While much is yet to be seen in the trial-and-error process of new technological uses for these Florida crops, Philippidis and many other ag industry experts feel that “the state has great potential” to add further still to its already-diverse agricultural portfolio.

CREDIT

story by CHERYL ROGERS