Maryland grain producers are taking a serious look at building an ethanol plant on the Eastern Shore, but the talk is focusing on crops other than corn. At least one Extension specialist believes barley could find a fit and give the Southeastern farmers an opportunity to participate in the production of ethanol.

The Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board (MGPUB) is moving forward to pursue construction of a 15-million gallon ethanol plant somewhere in Maryland, possibly on the Eastern Shore, known as the Delmarva Peninsula. The group found “enthusiastic” interest among its members for the project.

For this to happen with barley, farmers would have to return in large numbers to barley.

Production of barley in the upper Southeast has decreased by half over the past decade, says Dan Brann, Virginia Tech Extension grain specialist. The primary reason for the decline has been a move toward vertical integration in the swine and poultry industries, and production of poor quality barley that did not meet international quality standards.

Over the past several years, Carl Griffey, small grains breeder at Virginia Tech, has developed improved varieties of regular hulled and new “hulless” barley. Brann believes continued research into barley could revive markets and give upper Southeastern farmers a market with vertically integrated swine and poultry industries — as well as give farmers in the region a foot in the door to the ethanol market.

In recent years, Griffey and his group have developed hulled barley with superior yield and test weight compared to traditional varieties grown in the last decade. These new varieties, such as Callao, have a genetic test weight of at least 50 pounds per bushel, which is about two to three pounds higher than traditional hulled barley. The higher test weight is important if upper Southeast farmers will be able to participate in export opportunities, Brann says.

Virginia Tech will also release a new, high test weight hulled barley this fall that has much better standability than Callao. Hulled barley quality can improve with better varieties and management practices during production and harvest.

The next major advance in developing potential barley markets is hulless barley. With hulless barley, the hull separates during combining from the seed. It looks more like wheat than barley, Brann says. The test weight of current hulless barley lines is about 57 pounds per bushel.

A possibility

The desire to produce ethanol here prompted the board members of the MGPUB to commission a study on the economic feasibility of building an ethanol plant in Maryland using barley, says Lynne Hoot, the group's executive director.

“The results from the study are indicating that producing ethanol from barley and other small grain crops in Maryland is feasible,” Hoot says.

The group's board of directors will be meeting with a high-level government official at an ethanol workshop in Baltimore in October to discuss the project.

“It looks very promising,” Hoot says.

For the project to become reality, however, farmers would have to raise an estimated $12 million along the road to building a $30 million ethanol plant that would be able to produce 15 million gallons of ethanol, Hoot estimates. “The agriculture industry at this time doesn't have deep pockets, but would need to raise enough capital to be able to borrow money” in order to build the plant.

“We don't expect the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board to be the organizer of the plant,” Hoot says. “Some sort of entity, probably a limited liability corporation, could be set up to move this forward. However, we will continue to support the efforts.”

Why barley?

“Barley fits well into grain cropping systems,” Brann says. “It can be planted a week to 10 days earlier than wheat and will be ready to combine a week to 10 days earlier than wheat.”

An early June harvest would allow farmers in the upper Southeast to increase yields of double-cropped soybeans and possibly double-cropped corn, cotton or other crops, Brann says.

Why hulless barley?

“In a sense, a new crop is what we're looking at,” Brann says about “hulless” barley.

Recent research by Allen Harper, Virginia Tech Extension swine specialist and others has shown hulless barley to be comparable to corn as a feed for swine. In work done about five years ago, Jeannine Harter-Dennis, a University of Maryland poultry Nutrition Researcher, showed similar results in comparing corn and hulless barley as the energy ingredient in poultry feed.

“Hulless barley is an excellent poultry and swine feed,” Brann says. “Hopefully, barley will not be ‘just a feed ingredient.’” Barley may be a starch source for ethanol.

“In the Midwest, corn is used as the primary source of starch in the ethanol mix,” Brann says. “I believe we can compete with the Midwest if we produce our starch from barley and other small grains such as wheat and triticale.”

Absence of plants

Looking at a map of the eastern United States, Brann notes the absence of ethanol plants. “There have been rumors that an ethanol plant will be built in North Carolina and in South Carolina, but who knows?” Brann says. “We are a corn-deficit region.”

Brann sees barley as an avenue to allow the Southeast to share in the potentially lucrative production of ethanol. “We would like to see at least $5 per hundred weight for the hulless barley, but ultimately we must be competitive with corn in the Midwest.” That would require not only competitive pricing, but also significant value for by-products.

“Research is needed to develop the most valuable by-products when barley and/or wheat is used as the ethanol source,” Brann says. The USDA-ARS Eastern Regional Research Center located in Wyndmoor, Penn., may be able to help create the answers needed in this area, Brann says.

“The biofuels section of this facility has at least eight scientists, support staff and funding that could allocate a portion of their time to this effort if the concept of barley as an ethanol source in the eastern U.S. is feasible,” Brann says. “With good management and yields of 100 bushels per acre — that would mean a gross income of $200 per acre.”

Using barley as a source for ethanol, as well as a substantial feed source, would require production of millions of bushels, Brann says.

While Hoot sees barley's potential in ethanol production, she is quick to point out that “we are not designing a plant around a crop that we don't grow yet. We will design the plant for our traditional barley crop and if we move toward hulless barley varieties and can improve on the ethanol plant feedstock, then that will be good. Our bottom line is we want to find a grain market to improve agricultural profit margins.”

Hoot acknowledges that some of the demand for ethanol will be as a replacement for Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), which is added to fuel to oxygenate the gasoline. Oxygenation of gasoline is required under the Clean Air Act; but MTBE is toxic and water-soluble. “To date the EPA is holding fast on its oxygenate requirement and ethanol is currently the only replacement for MTBE. This move is seen by the fuel industry as a mandate and they are fighting the requirement.”

However, even without the oxygenate requirement, there's definitely a market for ethanol in the eastern U.S., Hoot says. It also serves as an octane boost, is a renewable resource, and replaces foreign oil. At the 10 percent level in gasoline, it can be used in any gas car on the road, Hoot says.

“The bottom line is, “Are we going to have an opportunity to participate, to be involved in the production of ethanol in the Southeast?” Brann says.


e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com