Bioeconomy growing in West Michigan

February 6, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The state of Michigan ranks second only to California in the diversity of its agriculture — and that diversity is increasing, especially in West Michigan, where energy and products from recycled farm and food processing waste are now part of the mix.

The recent changes are so profound that the Michigan Senate's Agriculture Committee just changed its name.

"We recognize the importance of agriculture to Michigan — it's a growing sector of the state's economy," said Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Norton Shores, chair of what is now called the Senate Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee. "As the industry continues to diversify, opportunities in the bioeconomy will be significant.

"It can serve a major role in helping improve Michigan's troubled economic condition," said VanWoerkom.

He was referring to agriculture throughout the state, but one ag expert said that West Michigan is where the action is.

West Michigan agriculture "has always been incredibly diverse," said Bill Steenwyk, a Michigan State University district extension educator based in Clarksville. A soil expert, Steenwyk said two factors create the unique diversity of West Michigan agriculture: proximity to Lake Michigan, which gives the area a longer frost-free growing season, and the variety of soil types.

"We have everything from gumbo clays and gritty sands to muck. Each of those are suitable for different crops," he said.

The soil varieties support a wide array of plants from vegetables and flowers to grains, hay, fruits, berries, Christmas trees, landscaping shrubs and more. The crops, in turn, support diversity in the livestock raised here: dairy, beef, hogs, turkeys and more.

The diversity in West Michigan agriculture has a new element, a totally different form of production — renewable energy.

A number of energy production projects were recently completed or are under way in West Michigan, at locations stretching from Fennville in Allegan County to Howard City in Montcalm County. An Ohio-based company that has played a key role in some of those innovative projects is Phase 3 Renewables, which has a Michigan office in Fennville near the Scenic View Dairy.

"We specialize in manure to energy conversion systems," said Norma McDonald, operating manager at the Phase 3 Renewables in Fennville. The company provides engineers and construction experts to design energy systems, and Scenic View Dairy was its first client in Michigan. Two years ago the dairy, which has about 2,000 cows plus another 1,450 cattle, became the first farm in the nation to convert dairy manure into "pipeline quality gas," which is added directly to the regional gas utilities' pipeline.

McDonald said a common misconception is that renewable energy systems have to be "huge" to be cost effective.

"Our system demonstrated that with as few as a thousand cows or 8,000 hogs, you've got enough manure to cost effectively create pipeline quality gas," she said.

Methane gas made from organic material broken down in anaerobic digesters like that at Scenic View Dairy can also be used to generate electricity. At Den Dulk Dairy in Ravenna, a $2.7 million biogas energy plant began operation one year ago, built by the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon in partnership with Reynolds Inc. of Orleans, Ind., with financial assistance through a $1 million Michigan Public Service Commission grant. Methane from manure is burned in a micro-turbine to generate electricity and thermal energy, which is used by the dairy. Excess electricity could also be added to the utility grid, but McDonald said there is an advantage to selling the energy as gas: Unlike electric utilities, gas utilities "will pay market rate" for the gas added to its pipeline.

McDonald said the concentration of farms in West Michigan adds to the efficiency of turning ag waste into energy. Now Phase 3 is developing a centralized digester at Geerlings Hillside Farms in Overisel, near the Allegan-Ottawa border. McDonald said a number of nearby farms will be continuously pumping their liquid manure to the Hillside Farms digester via small pipelines, an alternative to trucking it, which can be expensive for farmers and an annoyance to people who don't like the smell of it going down the road.

Large concentrations of manure are always an issue with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality because manure emits methane into the atmosphere and can sometimes pollute streams and ground water.

"Here we have an issue with the disposal of manure, and if we can bring it to (anaerobic) digesters, we end up with a clean byproduct — on top of creating energy. There is a huge potential in agriculture from the production of energy," said Van Woerkom.

He said the Senate ag committee has been supporting start-ups of anaerobic digesters for years.

"For a while it just didn't pay for itself to have a digester, but now, as the technology has improved, I think we're going to see more and more digesters across the state."

Yet another Phase 3 project slated to begin this spring is construction of a gasification plant at Harley Sietsema Farms feed mill in Howard City. The plant will use turkey manure to make electricity and steam, which will then be used by the mill — which makes feed for turkeys. Rather than anaerobic digestion, the process heats waste material, cooking it down to ash and releasing gas and heat in the process. McDonald said the turkey waste will be trucked in from turkey farms in several counties.

McDonald said the Sietsema Farms gasification plant may end up costing about $3 million. In addition to the value of the recovered energy, the ash resulting from the process can be used as fertilizer. Because it is sterile and still contains some nutrients, the ash can also be used as a feed additive; it also works as a chemical binder for use in paint and cement.

While dairy is the leading segment of Michigan agriculture — a $5.1 billion impact on the economy, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture — turkeys are big business, too. The turkey growers in West Michigan took a hit about 10 years ago when Bil-Mar Foods was purchased by Sara Lee Corp., which then moved its turkey operations to Iowa. The local growers then formed a co-op in Wyoming called Michigan Turkey Producers, with the help of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and The Right Place Inc., the economic development organization in Grand Rapids. Michigan Turkey now processes those West Michigan birds, and recently expanded operations in Grand Rapids (again with help from The Right Place), bringing its total employment in Grand Rapids and Wyoming to about 550, according to Michigan Turkey marketing manager Kyle Maas.

"Michigan is a huge agriculture state. I think agriculture in general is our second largest industry," said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place. She said West Michigan agriculture ranges from the small farmer selling produce at the farmers market in Grand Rapids to the huge egg production farms near Lowell.

Michigan produces more blueberries than any other state — with much of that production in West Michigan, she noted. "I've bought Michigan blueberries in Switzerland," said Klohs.

The Fremont area advanced the agricultural economy of West Michigan when, in December, Gerber Products announced $75 million in new investment over the next 10 years. The expansion will create 200 jobs there related to its infant/toddler food research center, making it one of the key R&D centers of parent company Nestlé, one of the largest food-processing corporations in the world.

The announcement coincided with the approval by the state of Michigan of an Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone designation for Gerber, which is the county's largest employer.

Van Woerkom noted that Gerber is also involved in a proposed community anaerobic digester in Fremont. According to Fremont city manager Bryan Gruesbeck, the city has reached a purchase agreement for the sale of 20 acres in the municipal industrial park for a digester that would produce methane gas and fertilizer from food processing waste.

Andy Lofgren, executive director of the Newaygo County Economic Development Office, said the plan apparently calls for Gerber and many farms and food processors in the area to supply the waste, with Gerber buying the energy and recovered waste water for making steam used in plant processes.

The process is also expected to yield fertilizer for sale through the local Fremont Co-op, which many farmers belong to. Any addition to the supply of fertilizer available to West Michigan farmers would be to their advantage, because there have been "crazy (fertilizer) markets and prices" worldwide for the past couple of years, Steenwyk said.

He said nitrogen prices from late 2006 into 2008 doubled; phosphorus went up "somewhere between two and a half and three times," and potash "pretty much tripled."

Although prices dropped recently with the worsening of the worldwide recession, the prices are still so high that even small farmers might end up spending an extra $30,000 dollars this year  — on top of what they already pay, he emphasized.

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