Crews harvest crop residue for biomass

Source: By Amy Bickel Kansas, Agland • Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2015

HALSTEAD – The wheat field here is shaved down to a schoolboy’s haircut, but Courtney Wilson’s harvest is just beginning.

“I sometimes feel like a door-to-door salesman,” the man admitted as he stood in a field of stubble, watching as a crew operated swathers and balers.

Some farmers burn the stubble after wheat harvest. Some disk it. Some plant the next crop right into it. But Wilson, harvest manager for Pacific Ag, wants to let farmers know they’re leaving a paycheck out in the field.

In a sense, he and his custom harvest crew are taking the straw left so it can be spun into gasoline gold.

For the most part, anyway. Due to the distance, the straw on this farm will most likely go to mushroom farms and dairies. Yet, in a 100-mile radius of Abengoa’s biomass plant in Hugoton, Wilson’s company has crews doing the same work.

They take residue from the field and bale it up, hauling it to the plant to be turned into a new fuel – cellulosic ethanol.

“It’s another source of income off of one crop,” Wilson said.

In western Kansas, residue from irrigated fields of corn, milo and wheat is valuable for nutrients, controlling soil erosion and retaining moisture in an area of the state where water tables are declining and rainfall is scarce.

Moisture, after all, is very important in the highly productive but semi-arid High Plains of Kansas.

But Wilson says they can take about half of that residue left on irrigated corn, milo and wheat fields, give farmers an additional income, and still leave enough behind to protect the ground.

While southwest Kansas might be water-strapped, Spanish company Abengoa saw the potential in the irrigated circles that dot the landscape. The company has said it selected Kansas for two primary reasons: because the state is business-friendly and due to the amount of biomass available.

It’s a new realm of making ethanol from crops. Kansas currently has 12 ethanol plants that use roughly 183 million bushels of corn and sorghum to produce fuel, according to the Kansas Corn Association.

In 2011, Abengoa began building Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas – one of the nation’s first cellulosic ethanol plants. It could help the nation become more energy-independent.

Abengoa received a $132.4 million loan guarantee and a $97 million grant through the Department of Energy to support construction of the $400 Hugoton facility.

The facility will create ethanol and the co-generation of electricity, Tom Robb, Abengoa’s manager of industrial relations, said last month.

Eventually. Abengoa is still working to get the plant fully functioning. One company website noted that the plant would begin operations in June 2013. Another stated by the end of 2014. Because it’s a new concept, Robb said in May, they are still working out any problems, and they are not yet in full production.

Once at full capacity, however, the company will hire 79 full-time employees and process 1,000 tons of biomass a day – or roughly 350,000 biomass bales a year. That will produce up to 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol and 21 megawatts of electricity.

That’s all thanks to the straw collected by Wilson’s company from farmers’ fields in the 100-mile radius of the plant, Wilson said.

Founded in 1998, Pacific Ag operates the largest agricultural residue and forage harvesting business in the United States. Operating in seven states, it also has the largest fleet of biomass harvesting equipment in the nation.

Robb has noted the plant is a win-win for the Kansas economy. He estimated about 200 area farmers will be paid $15 a ton for their crop residue.

Wilson said his company plans to pay out $3 million to southwest Kansas farmers in the 100-mile radius of Hugoton, up $1 million from last year. He added that Pacific Ag plans to continue to grow in the region.

The southwest Kansas market is Pacific Ag’s biggest sector nationwide “as far as tons goes,” Wilson said.

But there is also potential for farmers to add to their income in south-central Kansas. For the past several weeks, Wilson has been manning crews between McPherson and Great Bend, as well as, on this day, Halstead.

Halstead farmer Rod Berger said with just 134 acres of wheat it’s not a huge check. But it does give him a little extra cash that he didn’t have before.

“Normally, we would have disked, then chiseled the field,” he said, adding he plans to double-crop soybeans into part of the acreage, so getting rid of some of the residue is a plus.

In late June, the crew worked quickly in Berger’s cut wheat field. Supervisor Mercedes Flores directed his men – largely first-time ag operators – from the edge of the field.

One ran a swather. Two guys operated the tractor and baler. Not all can pick it up quickly, Flores said.

Flores soon showed he was a jack-of-all-trades. He jumped into a tractor pulling a bale stacker, then began working with the baler when one of the crew members was having trouble.

He’s living in a motel room in McPherson, he said, leaving his wife and child in Dodge City.

There are about 10,000 acres to cover in central Kansas. They’ll be in this area for a few more weeks, Wilson said.

“Unlike hay, we can run at the heat of the day,” Wilson said. “We’d rather start early in the morning and go late and get a few hours of sleep.”

But for now, they work in the summer heat. Then Wilson, Flores and the crew head back to Dodge City. In mid-September, they will start working in irrigated corn and milo fields.

“We’re still looking for workers,” Flores said.