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Bio-initiative looking for a few good farmers

Pete Nelson and Hillary Spain are looking for a few good west Tennessee farmers — 25 to be exact — to participate in a new initiative to connect farmers to new and developing bioindustries.

The initiative, called AgBioworks, was created by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2001 to help build and commercialize the quickly developing field of bioscience.

Nelson, Spain and the company they work for, BioDimensions, have been hired to coordinate the education and recruitment of farmers for the initiative. They're calling the effort the 25Farmer Network.

“We want to recruit a group of entrepreneurial farmers to enter into a contract to grow up to 5 acres of experimental crops, attend one or more national conferences, and participate in business development workshops during the winter,” said Nelson, co-founder of BioDimensions, a consulting company specializing in biobased products and renewable energy industries.

Participating farmers will receive a minimum of $500 per acre to mitigate their risk, and reimbursement of up to $1,200 for attendance to national meetings.”

Spain noted, “We want to form new ventures supplying renewable, farm-grown products to local industries. We are going to examine a whole range of new crops including oilseeds, fiber biomass for energy, sugars and starches.

This year, demonstration plots are planned for Agricenter International in Memphis. Next year, research will be extended to Jackson, Tenn., and Milan, Tenn.

“We want to scale the small plot research up to larger plots on the farm. Then, when Randy Powell (who is in charge of the AgBioworks initiative) is working with the manufacturers, he has samples for local industries, said Nelson.

AgBioworks is already working with several regional and national companies converting crops into biobased fuels, chemicals, and other products. For the 25Farmer Network, AgBioworks is targeting companies that are gearing up to produce large volumes of new bioenergy and oilseed crops.

For example, companies such as Ceres, Inc., and Mendel Biotechnology, Inc., are developing proprietary dedicated energy crops, using biotechnology tools developed for commodity crops. By 2009 it is expected that the 25Farmer Network will be conducting production level trials for private businesses such as these.

The 25Farmer Network is a pilot program funded by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and is being launched in the 21 counties of west Tennessee. AgBioworks plans to extend the initiative into other parts of the 83-county area when funding becomes available in other states.

Meetings to recruit the 25Farmer Network will begin in July. During the meetings, “We'll provide an overview of opportunities in the biomass industry and an update on companies interested in buying biomass-based products nationally,” Nelson said.

Dates for the upcoming meetings:

  • Thursday, July 24 — Milan Field Day, Milan, Tenn.

  • Tuesday, July 29, West Tennessee Research and Education Center, Jackson, Tenn., 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

  • Wednesday, Aug. 6, Agricenter, Memphis, Tenn., 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

  • Tuesday, Aug. 12, Dyer County Extension Office, Dyersburg, Tenn., 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

For more information contact Hillary Spain at (901) 448-1724 or

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