October’s Biomass: From Grow to Go Field Day, sponsored by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy along with several co-sponsors, demonstrated the industry’s growing  expertise in biomass production, processing, and conversion research to farmers, industry representatives and students alike.

More than 1,000 attended over the course of the two-day event, including some 625 local middle- and high-school students.

Other co-sponsors of the event included Genera Energy, LLC; DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol; and Ceres, Inc. The event was designed to provide state-of-the-art, research-based information to participants regarding biomass production and related systems.

Day one, Oct. 25, was organized as a traditional field day and held at Color Wheel Farm. Owners Brad and Kim Black, recipients of the 2010 Tennessee Farmer of the Year Award and participants in the University’s switchgrass production program, showed off their healthy stands of switchgrass —some 292 acres of various varieties.

Their fields also hosted five speaking tours focused on topics from biomass agronomics, to environmental sustainability and market development as well as mowing, baling, and raking equipment demonstrations from several different manufacturers.

Participants were also able to see three varieties of switchgrass in full production.

Kelly Tiller, president and CEO of Genera Energy and a professor of agricultural economics at UT, was among the luncheon speakers. Tiller shared with the crowd her assessments of the current state of the biofuels industry in the state and region and concluded that the area is well positioned for success.

Good return on investment

She also noted that the return on investment of the state of Tennessee’s original investment in the $70 million research and production program and biorefinery has to date totaled more than $160 million in research grants, including the establishment of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Bioenergy Science Center and the UT Center for Renewable Carbon’s recent USDA grant of $15 million.

“Additionally, we have leveraged the state’s investment in the UT Biofuels Initiative to secure more than $75 million in private funding,” Tiller said.

Tiller’s co-speaker was Harry Rymer of Polk County, Tenn.  Rymer grows some 378 acres of switchgrass as part of UT’s production research program, and he shared his enthusiasm and concern regarding the new energy crop.

Overall, his assessment of the effort to date was positive from the farmer’s perspective, but he did express the need for continued development of commercial markets.

Each day of the event was operated independently, and attendees were welcome to attend either day, or both days. Nearly 350 attended day one on the farm, and most returned for the second day’s tours and demonstrations at Genera Energy’s Biomass Innovation Park.

The BIP, as it is called, collects, pre-processes and stores biomass materials prior to their distribution to the biorefinery or other facilities.

Genera Energy is wholly owned by the UT Research Foundation and dedicated to developing integrated biomass supply chain solutions and strategic partnerships to support the region’s emerging bioenergy industry.

Most of the crowd also toured the grounds of the nearby pre-commercial biorefinery operated jointly by Genera Energy and DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol. The facility is one of the world’s first pre-commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefineries.

“We are thrilled at the level of interest,” said event organizer Sam Jackson, a research assistant professor in the UT Center for Renewal Carbon.

Jackson also serves as vice-president for feedstock operations for Genera Energy. “We planned a broad-based event that addressed every aspect of biomass production and processing, particularly switchgrasss and woody biomass, and I think we addressed a lot of the questions circulating about production and processing issues.

“I am particularly pleased we were able to address the questions young people have about the future of the industry,” he said.
Jackson also said that plans are already being made for a Biomass: From Grow to Go Field Day in 2012.