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Alternative energy company looking for farmers

An alternative energy company met recently with about 20 farmers at the LSU AgCenter extension office in Abbeville, La., to discuss growing crops to be converted into ethanol.

The company, Verenium, previously known as Celunol, has a pilot plant at Jennings, La., with a demonstration plant under construction and a commercial plant planned for 2010. The company’s goal is to make ethanol by converting plant cellulose into the fuel.

Verenium representative Braden Houston told the farmers the company is considering sorghum sudangrass and a sugarcane variety developed by the LSU AgCenter, L7910-02, as feedstock that could be grown by farmers.

The company wants 1,500 acres of these crops in 2008 and 15,000 acres by 2009 to be used when the commercial plant is running.

Houston said the company estimates farmers could make a net profit of $150 to $200 an acre on an energy crop.

Howard Cormier, LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish, said that profit level would be considered low. He also said farmers not already growing sugarcane would face huge startup costs.

Houston said the company is considering contracts for farmers to grow the crops, and Verenium would handle harvesting and transporting the crop to the plant.

Houston said the company is “pretty darned close” to making the cellulosic process profitable, and he said government subsidies for companies developing the cellulosic process appear to be immune from the issues being raised against corn-based ethanol.

Houston said the process to convert woody products into ethanol has not been made practical yet, and he said rice straw tested in California contained too much silica for the conversion.

Farmer Roland Faulk said he’s interested in the proposal. “We’d like to get into something like this, but you’ve got to understand you’re competing with the price of soybeans,” Faulk said.

Jimmy Domingues said he grew 150 acres of sorghum sudangrass in the mid-1980s, and it was hurt by a drought. The crop was for a New Iberia, La., ethanol plant that went out of business, he said.

Houston also said the company is trying to find out if crop insurance can be obtained for energy crops. “That is critical,” he said. “If you can’t get crop insurance, you can’t grow this stuff.”

Houston said he would schedule another meeting when he will have more specifics.

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