Former University of Iowa football star Bruce Nelson shows Iowa Farm Bureau's steer at the Governor's Charity Steer Show.Gearing up to supply biomass to fuel Poet-DSM’s new cellulosic ethanol plant in northwest Iowa is a little like building a winning football team — it takes a lot of practice, and a few mistakes, according Bruce Nelson, a farmer and former college and pro football player from Emmetsburg who was recently announced as Kinnick Stadium's newest America Needs Farmers (ANF) Wall of Honor selection

Poet officials say the cellulosic ethanol production facility, dubbed Project Liberty, is expected to start producing cellulosic ethanol within the next two months.

"We are basically 99 percent done with construction," said Mark Deandrea, senior vice president of strategic development for Poet, at the 30th Annual Fuel Ethanol Workshop (FEW) in Indianapolis last month.

Scaling up

Nelson has been baling and transporting corn crop residue as part of a pilot harvesting program for the cellulosic fuel plant for four years. He said the work has been challenging, especially moving and transporting the one-ton bales to Poet’s storage yard, but the process has improved each year.

"We’ve had a pretty good experience," said Nelson, who grows crops and has a custom baling enterprise with his dad and uncle. "The first couple of years were pretty rough. We made a few mistakes. Years three and four were much better. We learned a lot."

Project Liberty will use bales of corn cobs, leaves, husks and some stalk to initially produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic bio-ethanol annually, later ramping up to 25 million gallons. The biomass receiving and grinding building operation will process an average of 770 dry tons of biomass per day, requiring an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 one-ton corn stalk bales annually.

"I can say from an operator’s standpoint, we really did need four years to get prepared for this point in the game," said Nelson. "To go from zero to 350,000 is impossible. Scaling up for the last four years was a great move."

Further improvements in equipment and procedures are still needed to help farmers and custom operators efficiently supply the massive amounts of biomass that will be needed when the plant is up and running, Nelson said.

"It seems easy. People have been baling corn stalks for a long time, but this is a little different," he said. "They still have a ways to go to make (some equipment) commercial."

Picking up and transporting thousands of round bales is one of the most challenging aspects of the operation, Nelson said. Most bale movers are designed for farmers who move 500 to 1,000 bales a year, not commercial operators who may move three times that many bales in just a few weeks, he explained.

New revenue stream

Farmers are glad to see Project Liberty moving into the final stages of construction after numerous delays in the early years of the project, Nelson said. The multi-million dollar investment by Poet and Royal DSM, a global biotech company, offers some certainty that the future for cellulosic ethanol has finally arrived.

Baling crop residue represents a new revenue opportunity for farmers with minimal input costs since it doesn’t require any additional planting. Project Liberty expects to source most of its material in a 35-mile radius of Emmetsburg and is projected to provide about $20 million in income annually to Emmetsburg-area farmers who harvest the corn-crop biomass.

Construction of the $250 million cellulosic ethanol facility has also boosted the Emmetsburg economy by bringing jobs to the region, said Nelson.

"Just the plant being built has greatly benefited the community. The hardware store and restaurants are all busy," he said.

Baling stover has also created opportunities for custom harvesters like Nelson to diversify their farm operations. His family bales crop residue on its own land as well as for other farmers who don’t have the equipment to do it themselves, said Nelson, who played offensive line for four seasons at the University of Iowa and two seasons with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers before returning home to farm.

Additional jobs are created as custom harvesters like the Nelsons hire local community college students to help out during harvest. Moving the bales to Poet’s storage yard provides additional work for area trucking companies, and area implement dealers have seen increased business selling balers, tractors and bale moving equipment.

"This is a real deal," Nelson said. "People’s lives have been affected."

Environmental stewardship

With a lot of corn-on-corn fields in the area and modern, high-yielding hybrids that produce more residue, baling some of the stover helps manage residue and leaves a better seedbed for the following spring, Nelson noted.

The suggested rate of stover removal, approximately 1 ton per acre or 25 percent of the above-ground biomass, leaves plenty of ground cover and removes minimal nutrients, according to Iowa State University studies.

"We’re taking a small windrow," said Nelson. "We shut the spreaders off and we’re only taking the stuff that comes out of the back of the combine. We’re not raking it or anything. When we get done, you can hardly tell the difference. It’s just a little darker where we took the harvest."