More than a dozen farmers from across the St. John Valley convened at the University of Maine at Fort Kent recently to hear a presentation on the feasibility of growing biomass grasses, which can be manufactured into heating-producing pellets.
The meeting was sponsored by UMFK's Center for Rural Sustainable Development (CRSD) and was conducted by the Center's Director, John L. Martin, and by UMFK Assistant Professor of Business, Leo Trudel. The St. John Valley Soil and Water Conservation District assisted with outreach for the presentation.
The CRSD recently received a $62,334 grant to study farmer interest in large-scale grass biomass production, as well as the economic and market feasibility of grass biomass in the St. John Valley. The study, Sustainable Heating in Fort Kent: A Biomass Initiative Case Study, is federally-funded through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the Sustainability Solutions Partners (SSP) project.
Aroostook County has a large land base that is underutilized and potentially could be utilized for biomass grass production should the study prove viable.
The purpose of the meeting yesterday was to determine whether there is, in fact, interest among area farmers, as well as the required resources necessary to develop a biomass industry in the St. John Valley. An established biomass industry would help support farmers willing to grow the raw material (grasses) that would be harvested and compressed into pellets. The finished product would provide an alternative heat source that is sustainable, locally grown and produced, and more economical than foreign oil.
Northern Maine has long, cold winters and is primarily undeveloped with most land area either forested or farmland. The area is largely dependent on oil for heat, which makes it vulnerable to fluctuating prices. Currently, about 10 percent of local household income is used for home heating.
These conditions raise questions about whether grass biomass, an annually renewable resource, could benefit the local economy for households and small business owners. With producer interest, the existing farmland in the largest rural county east of the Mississippi River could create a market niche.
Among the topics covered during the two-hour session were: the types of grasses that potential could be grown in northern Maine; the yield per acre of various grass types; the ideal moisture content of grasses for pellet production; pellet sizes; existing and future markets for grass pellets; problems inherent with certain grasses; and, ash disposal.
The participating farmers will next hear presentations from New York and Pennsylvania-based farmers who have been growing and producing biomass grasses for upwards of ten years. Those presentations are tentatively scheduled for early 2013.