Ontario’s biomass industry ready to grow by seeking new markets

Miscanthus image - OMAFRA

Three year old miscanthus (OMAFRA image)

Producing and processing agricultural biomass is an emerging opportunity for Ontario farmers.

After thorough initial research, the fledgling industry is now working to build and expand markets for biomass crops that can be grown for energy, livestock bedding, bioproducts, or as a replacement for straw in applications like composting.

A comprehensive project led by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and funded through Growing Forward, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative, evaluated the potential of biomass crops in different geographic locations in Ontario.

This included establishing a business case, determining possible markets, and studying the agronomics of production, such as seeding, harvesting and pest control.

“Over the last four to five years, a number of partners, including University of Guelph, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, have looked at all the production aspects of growing biomass or purpose-grown energy crops,” explains Mahendra Thimmanagari, Crop Bioproducts Specialist with OMAFRA. “We’ve generated information on possible production issues, weeds and pests, yield potential, and cost of production, and we’ve identified potential markets.”

Miscanthus and switchgrass are the most common biomass crops, with miscanthus growing well in more productive soils.Switchgrass, a more economical crop to grow, is equally suited to higher or lower class land.

Both have high yield potential (10 to-25 tonnes per hectare for miscanthus and seven to 10 tonnes per hectare for switchgrass) and are perennial crops. Once established, the plant stands will remain productive for 15 to 20 years.

Biomass crops could present alternative cropping or crop diversification opportunities for cash crop farmers, and they could be a good addition into regular crop rotations as their extensive root systems can improve soil health.

Currently, switchgrass and miscanthus are grown on around 2,500 acres mostly in southwestern and eastern Ontario, with some acreage also in northern areas of the province.

According to Thimmanagari, most farmers are currently selling these crops at approximately $0.07 per pound. To grow that industry, several possible markets have been identified, some shorter-term and some longer-term in nature, he says.

The Ontario Biomass Producers Co-operative (OBPC), with a group of Ontario farmers, supports sustainable biomass production across Ontario and is actively pursuing new markets for these crops.

In the short-term, livestock bedding could be an attractive local market opportunity, particularly in years when wheat straw, a commonly used bedding source, is in short supply.

Other shorter-term possibilities are as an ingredient in compost used by mushroom growers or as a replacement for wood shavings in mulch currently used by nurseries.

Combustion for space heating and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is also an option, although Thimmanagari admits it can be hard for agricultural biomass to compete with lower cost wood pellets that are currently widely used.

Market opportunities also exist for what are called biocomposites – plastic products like car parts and flower pots that use plant-based instead of fossil fuel-based ingredients.

Using biomass crop fibres in automotive manufacturing, for example, can result in lighter car parts which, in turn, improve vehicle fuel efficiency.

Thimmanagari says biocomposite markets in the consumer, automotive, and construction sectors are expected to increase significantly over the next decade as demand for sustainable, bio-based products grows.

“Fuels and sugars are significant future markets,” he says, adding that the technologies and supply chains for those opportunities are still in development. “Once you extract sugar from the biomass, the sugar can be used in any chemical. Corn-based sugar is currently being widely used.”

“To expand and grow this new industry, we are actively looking into many of these market opportunities, and providing support to farmers, primary and secondary processors, and others who are working in this supply chain,” he adds.

More information about biomass crop opportunities is available at:

http://omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/biomass/index.htm
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/biomass/projects.htm
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http://www.ofa.on.ca/issues/overview/biomass
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/busdev/bear2000/Budgets/Crops/Forages/switchgrass_static.htm