Renewable energy project expanding to bring more jobs to area

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – The expansion of a renewable energy project will likely bring hundreds of jobs to Arkansas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced Thursday that it will widen the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) area in Northeast Arkansas.

The 2008 Farm Bill authorized this project, which sets aside nearly 8,000 acres to grow crops that will be processed into renewable energy.

The initial BCAP project area included more than 5,000 acres of land in Craighead, Greene, Jackson, Lawrence, Mississippi, Poinsett and Randolph counties. The creation of the BCAP Project Area 2 will grow this project within three counties, bringing enrollment up to nearly 8,000 acres of Giant Miscanthus.

"As the program matures, as we get more acres in, as we build the conversion plant here, we fully expect it to have a tremendous economic development impact on Northeast Arkansas," Tim Wooldridge said.

Wooldridge serves as the Arkansas project manager for MFA Oil Biomass LLC, in Columbia, Mo. The company sponsors the state's BCAP project area with its partner Aloterra Energy LLC, operating in Ohio. Both will continue to coordinate the local crop propagations, planting, mitigation and monitoring plan.

The federal government views BCAP as its key to getting farmers to look at energy crops, like Miscanthus. The program pays farmers up to 75 percent of planting costs and offers to pay an annual rent payment while they wait for their crops to mature. Once crops mature, farmers will be able to get two years of matching payments for their tonnage, up to $45 per ton beyond what the farmers sell it for.

"If we can make that marginal land more productive, if we can create jobs and economic development, if we can lessen the dependency on foreign oil," Wooldridge said, "boy, that's a triple victory."

People sometimes grow Miscanthus in their yards, but area farmers are now planting it for a potential profit. Miscanthus is a warm seasonal perennial grass that is non-invasive, drought and pest resitant and needs less fertilizer than food crops. It is capable of being grown on barren land without the aid of heavy fertilization, which farmers like David Hodges has done.

"We all want to see the country become more self-sufficient and not rely so much on foreign oil," Hodges said, "whether that's drilling for domestic oil or producing our own with this being one form of that."

Hodges has set aside 300 acres of his own farmland to grow Miscanthus, and he has partnered with several investors on another 800 acres. His energy crops will take several years to reach maturity until harvest, a timeline designed to parallel the construction schedule of an area plant that will convert these crops into fuel pellets and other products.

"Hopefully, it'll be a good fit for some of this land that's more marginal land," Hodges said, "and it's not going to be a crop that's going to produce the kind of revenue that a cotton or rice crop would produce on developed land. But it will still hopefully give the landowners a little bit of income off of it."

According to the USDA, this project should create about 750 jobs in the coming years.

Farmers can learn when to apply for the BCAP project areas by visiting their local FSA office or contacting Tim Wooldridge here.

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