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MSU biomass program draws praise from Ag Commish Comer

(Murray, KY – July 12, 2012) – It was a very good day for Dr. Tony Brannon. The Dean of the Hutson School of Agriculture at Murray State heard speaker after speaker, including the young Commissioner of Agriculture applaud him for being “crazy” for bringing a biomass program to the University.  Not just bringing the program, but convincing everyone, including deans of other colleges to join him in what must have seemed a quixotic adventure.

Biomass burnerBrannon recruited university administrators, deans of the colleges of business and science, the area development district, outreach, business development, local farmers and state agriculture officials to begin the process of making new agricultural products and a new agricultural market where none existed before.

Regional business development director Loretta Daniel of the Regional Business and Innovation Center said the purpose of biomass project is not to replace row crops (soybeans, wheat, corn), but to find ways to profitably use areas unsuited for row cropping. Biomass production is not a “food or fuel” issue, as corn grown for ethanol became.

A venture called AgBioworks was created in the early days of the program. The program has four tasks:
1. Educate the region about biomass opportunities.
2. Develop supply chains through farm networks
3. Establish a Biomass Demonstration Project
4. Support the commercialization of biomass for energy, fuels, chemicals and materials with existing companies, new processing facilities and new technologies.

One task is to figure out what plants grow best in West Kentucky. Several area farmers got on board early to start experimenting crops outside the usual row crops found across the region. The group called the West Kentucky Farmer Network is devoted to helping Kentucky farmers become more competitive.

Murray State’s Bio Energy Demonstration Center is actively studying and identifying crops that work best and the methods to plant, harvest, store and deliver them.  The Center is a place that farmers can come and see for themselves how plants perform.
Growing is just the first challenge.

Unless there is a market, farmers won’t grow the product. The second part of the project is developing a demand for the product. Not only will there have to be a need for the product, but the price will have to make it worthwhile for farmers to produce in quantity.

As part of the market, products will have to be developed.  As new ways to use biomass for energy comes online, it will be possible for a farmer to heat and air condition his home and barns with his own biomass. An energy machine created by a Madisonville firm is a start in that direction.(Photo at left)

Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer is on board. In a short speech after lunch, he shared his vision that Kentucky can be the biomass center of the US. Comer praised Western Kentuckians for their respect for agriculture.

”You see agriculture as economic development.” He said. “That does not happen everywhere in this state.”

As he left the meeting, Comer was asked what is next for biomass.

Comer said that Murray State’s research should go on. Once it is determined what crop works best for West Kentucky, he said that his agency will work hard to find sources to develop products and a market.

Comer agreed that farmers will not buy into the program until they are assured of a market.

As Tony Brannon said, developing a crop is not something that happens by accident.  Brannon expressed that the program has come a long way.  He also said it has a long way yet to go.

Murray State University is showing itself to be a leader in the development in biomass crops. There is a long way to go, but the university is committed to helping area farmers and businesses find success with the renewable energy of biomass products.

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