Minnesota farmers look to Legislature for expansion paths
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota farmers want state leaders to help them expand to new markets. They are ready to enter a new era of producing crops that can be made into products ranging from rope to ink, but rural legislators say some laws must change first.
ST. PAUL - Minnesota farmers want state leaders to help them expand to new markets.
They are ready to enter a new era of producing crops that can be made into products ranging from rope to ink, but rural legislators say some laws must change first.
House and Senate committees Wednesday approved measures written to help those advances. One would allow industrial hemp research, while the other would provide incentives to produce advanced biofuels that could be used for more products than the current ethanol.
The biofuel bill could have the most immediate impact since the federal government still restricts growing hemp.
“This bill takes advantage of Minnesota’s abundant forest and agriculture feedstocks,” Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said about his plan to provide subsidies to makers of advanced biofuels used for fuel, heat and chemicals.
“The worldwide advanced biofuels market will be over $185 billion by 2021, and we want to be leaders right here in Minnesota,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.
Hamilton, who sponsors the House version of the Saxhaug bill, said increased production of biofuels and renewable chemicals would lessen the existing use of fossil fuels and be an economic boon to the state.
To receive the state grants, at least 80 percent of raw materials would have to come from Minnesota, or in cases of plants near the state’s borders, they would need to come from within 100 miles.
Brigid Tuck of the University of Minnesota Extension Service predicted that $837 million of economic activity would occur in the state if the bill passes. She said it would create more than 3,000 jobs.
Seven advanced biofuel facilities are under construction, she said.
Ethanol usually is made from corn and biodiesel from soybeans. Advanced biofuels could be made from many other inputs, including sugar beets, wood waste, crop wastes and alfalfa.
John Warren of GreenBiologics, which operates CentralMNRenewables in Little Falls, said his plant is converting from traditional ethanol to produce n-butanol and acetone instead. The new products, which need little new equipment to make, will include paint, ink, adhesives, cleaners, heating fuels, food ingredients and lubricants, he said.
“It can take some time to grow those markets and there can be some growing pains,” Warren said, which the proposed state grants can help.
The way the Saxhaug and Hamilton bills are written, Warren said, the state would not pay money to build advanced biofuel plants, just pay once they are producing goods.
“There is going to be a lot of money coming into the state before the state has to pay any money out,” Warren said.
State payments would be made for 10 years. If the concept advances, the amount available for grants will be part of a budget bill later this year.
Environmentalists complain that using biofuel inputs such as corn would lead to more soil erosion.
Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership told senators that they should encourage growing crops like alfalfa, which are not plowed under annually, to provide cover that would hold down erosion.
Lawmakers also advanced a bill that would allow industrial hemp research in Minnesota.
“It would be a very limited basis,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.
A new federal farm law allows such limited hemp growing, but still outlaws using it as a crop.
In committees, Eken and Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, passed around products made from hemp, which is legal to grow in Canada.
Eken said their bill “positions us well” if growing hemp as a farm crop is legalized. Once farmers begin growing it as a crop, he said, manufacturing facilities would be built nearby.
Hemp is used in food, ropes, cement, clothing, soap, paper and other products.
Thom Petersen of Minnesota Farmers Union said there is a “tremendous interest in hemp” among the state’s farmers. Its growing season is similar to corn, but needs little fertilizer and insecticide.
The biofuel and hemp bills have numerous committee stops before reaching votes by the full House and Senate.
Jonathan Mohr of the nonpartisan House Session Daily contributed to this story.