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Posted on  

March 31, 2003

Oklahoma pins hopes on barley for ethanol

A new strain of hulless barley for a proposed ethanol plant is being watched for its economic potential.

Daily Oklahoman

If the 300 or so acres of a new line of barley planted throughout the state still stand tall and healthy later this spring, it could be the beginning of a whole new way of farming in Oklahoma.

"If this barley makes it, we can expect to see our grain elevators gearing up to handle this," said Terry Detrick, vice president of Oklahoma Farmers Union. "I can see us having a whole new market where farmers won't have to invest in new machinery and equipment."

If the barley makes it, Detrick said, it should have ethanol-producing capabilities similar to corn that Oklahoma farmers can sell to an ethanol plant. Proponents hope to have one running in the north-central part of the state within three years.

"I know as sure as I'm sitting here that we are on the verge of a new kind of agriculture," said Detrick, who also serves as chairman for Oklahoma Farmers Union Sustainable Energy LLC, the ethanol plant's steering committee. "There's no need for us to be worrying about Saddam Hussein sending oil in here; we can grow our own energy."

A new report commissioned by the state says an ethanol plant would have positive implications for Oklahoma.

"This report paints a very positive picture," said Gary Bledsoe, a consultant for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. "There are lots of positive terms as far as general revenue, taxes, additional employment and revenue for farmers."

In the past three years, the report says, U.S. ethanol production has doubled, with 69 plants in 20 states producing 2.7 billion gallons per year. Ten plants are under construction, and the ethanol industry expects to double production again after Congress passes an expected Renewable Fuels Standard later this year.

Mason Mungle, legislative liaison for Oklahoma Farmers Union, said efforts to lay the groundwork for building an ethanol production plant began two years ago.

In many parts of the country, corn fuels ethanol plants. But with Oklahoma's hot and dry climate, "corn hasn't been a crop we've grown a lot of," Detrick said.

So it was important, committee members thought, to find grains that won't make the corn deficiency worse and also be a boon to farmers.

According to the Oklahoma ethanol feasibility report, if farmers replant only 10 percent of their wheat acres in this new line of hulless barley, that boon could be substantial. Farmers can grow two bushels of barley for every bushel of wheat, Detrick said. Since barley is harvested in the spring, grain sorghum can be sown in summer on the same land for a double-rotation harvest.

Meade and others propose growing grains to fuel the ethanol plant and using the plant's feed byproduct in their livestock operations.

"This should allow Oklahoma farmers to grow a feed grain at a profit," Meade said.

Meade and others on the committee estimate the plant will produce 30 million gallons of ethanol a year and will cost about $45 million to build.

"The last time gasoline prices skyrocketed, back in the 1970s, we just didn't have the technology to make much use of ethanol," Meade said. "But now we do."

The next step, Mungle said, is to pinpoint site possibilities, though preliminary findings suggest north-central Oklahoma.

Proximity to natural gas, grain resources and markets for secondary products also will be considerations, Mungle said.

Mungle and Meade are confident that the ethanol plant can begin operation within three years. By then, Detrick expects farmers to be growing the grain necessary for the operation. All indications are that the barley has survived the winter in good shape, he said.


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