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Sugar beets could lead to biofuel jobs for Whitley County

Patriot BioEnergy partner Roger Ford speaks to local leaders about the possibility of a facility in Whitley County that would turn bioengineered sugar beets into fuel.

Sugar beets could very easily be putting people to work in Whitley County in the not too distant future if Roger Ford has his way, but these aren't the beets that your grandpa grew in his garden.

Ford, a partner with Patriot BioEnergy LLC, wants to grow industrial beets that will be turned into fuel. These beets are three to four feet in length and get as big around as a cantaloupe at the top.

"The crop is a hybrid sugar beet that is genetically engineered for ethanol production specifically," Ford said. "It is a non-edible crop. It does qualify as an advanced biomass product meaning that we do qualify for federal incentives and so forth as part of the effort to develop alternative energy.

"If we can prove this and make it work in Whitley County, we hope to build a facility to produce the ethanol right here locally, but that is down the road."

Ford made a presentation to a group of local leaders Thursday morning at Williamsburg City Hall. Among those in attendance were Whitley County Judge-Executive Pat White Jr., and staffers for U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, U.S Senator Rand Paul, and an official with the Cabinet for Economic Development in Frankfort.

Ford said there is currently a bio energy research project underway in Whitley County that involves a multi-group partnership, including the University of Kentucky of Center for Applied Energy Research, the City of Williamsburg and the Whitley County Fiscal Court among other partners.

A total of about two acres of beats are planted in three plots located at scattered locations in Whitley County.

"The idea is we would show the viability of growing a winter crop in Kentucky," Ford said. "We can grow this crop in the traditional growing season. Our hope is that we can produce two crops a year."

Ford said that research projects have already proven that the beets can be grown year round in a variety of places, including Michigan, Minnesota, Idaho, California, Alabama and Florida.

The beets are being planted with various methods with different types of fertilizer being used in order to see what works best in this climate.

Two of the partner companies in the venture, one from Italy and another from Uruguay, produce an organic inoculate for the seeds doing away with the need to use the traditional anhydrous ammonia fertilizer.

"You inoculate actually the seed and prepare it before you plant it. So you eliminate the need for a chemical fertilizer, which does a lot of positive things for the environment. In that respect, you avoid residual agriculture run-off from the fertilizer, which can damage streams," he said.

"We are hoping we can apply that technology to the growth of energy, which boosts obviously per acre yield and eliminates the need for chemical fertilizer, which is a little higher these days."

It isn't new technology. The beet is grown from seed developed by Betaseed, a North American company that is held by a German company, KWS, which is about 130 to 150 years old.

"They have a wealth of knowledge in the genetic engineering of seed. They developed the seed that we are using in the test," Ford said.

The crop could be an alternative for farmers, who used to make their income growing tobacco.

"It's a fairly easy crop to plant. There is not a lot of maintenance to it. There is not a lot of costs involved in planting it," he said. "We hope to work with the local farmers here to look at utilizing marginal land to supplement what they are already doing."

The company is also interested in talking with absentee landowners and others about possibly using their land. If the effort to build an ethanol plant in Whitley County comes to fruition, over 4,000 acres of the hybrid sugar beets would need to be grown.
If successful, the effort could be a win-win situation in a lot of perspectives. In addition to helping the local economy, it also would help the country to eliminate part of the nearly 40 percent of oil that is being imported.

"As Congressman Rogers says, many of those countries don't like us a lot. This would be a good thing, and would create some jobs at the same time in the local economy," Ford added.

"Really in this state, we have a problem with rural economic development and diversified industry. This would, I think, help with that."

While the beets aren't edible for human consumption, the beets produce two products in many cases.

"The first would obviously be the ethanol from the juice," Ford said. "We hope to palletize the pulp that is leftover. It is a high value, nutrient rich livestock feed supplement.

"That would help the local cattle farmer in the area by helping them stabilize some of their costs. Right now as I understand it, all of their corn feed is having to be trucked in, which is a fluctuating cost depending on the market."

If the effort to build an ethanol plant near Savoy is eventually successful, the first phase of the project would generate 25 - 30 full time jobs paying an average wage of $20 - $25 per hour.

Another 125 jobs would be created in phase two, which paid an average wage of $40 - $45 per hour.

The plant would requires 20 acres of property, and up to 500 temporary jobs would be created building it.

Phase one would cost $22 million. Phase two would cost $70 million.


nancy taylor (February 14, 2012) Reply

Very exciting project! Best wishes for you, the group, and the area toward achieving a viable home-grown energy source! Kudos! ;-)

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