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JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed an agreement Friday with DuPont that will help establish guidelines for how the company will collect corn-plant residue for a new ethanol plant in central Iowa while maintaining soil quality.
DuPont is building a $200 million plant in the town of Nevada that will use 375,000 tons of corn leaves and stalks, known as stover, annually to make cellulosic ethanol. It will be the nation's largest cellulosic plant when production - scheduled for 2014 - begins, making 30 million gallons of ethanol a year.
Until recently, ethanol was made from the corn kernel. But the demand for corn and the recent drought has pushed the grain's prices higher. Companies like DuPont have poured millions of dollars into research to figure out how to break down plant matter so it can be refined into ethanol.
Commercial-sized cellulosic plants are relatively new, but already about 70 projects are under construction in the United States. Two plants, including the DuPont one, are being built in the nation's leading corn-producing state, and will use the leaves, stalks and cobs of the corn plant.
"Cellulosic advanced biofuel is here and it's here to stay," Vilsack said. "This is an industry that is making America more energy secure. It's creating jobs. It's helping to reduce the cost of gas to consumers and it's reducing our reliance of foreign oil."
With the expansion of cellulosic ethanol, demand for corn stover and other biomass to feed the plants is expected to increase.
Farmers will benefit from the growing industry because companies are willing to pay them for the stover - which usually sits in the fields and decomposes after the harvest. Payments are typically about $15 a ton; two tons of stover per acre is usually removed, equating to about $30 an acre.
However, a certain amount of stover must be left on the ground to help replenish nutrients and control erosion.
Jeff Taylor, a fifth-generation farmer on about 1,600 acres north of Ames, said he's worked with DuPont for more than three years studying the impact of removing stover from the field. The company takes about 40 percent and tests have shown it's beneficial to the soil, Taylor said.
Advances in corn genetics means farmers can pack more corn plants into an acre - from 25,000 seeds per acre a decade ago to 34,000 an acre today, Taylor said. He gets a better yield and bigger paycheck at harvest, but there's also significantly more stover left behind.
"For producers, we started adding more tillage to control that amount of stover. As you remove 30 to 40 percent of that, it saves me a tillage pass, it saves me time as a producer," he said.
Taylor said he's found through soil testing that too much stover can cause certain bacteria to thrive, hinder the effectiveness of nitrogen fertilizer and suppress the emergence of new seeds in the following growing season.
Friday's agreement directs the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service to work with DuPont and Iowa farmers for five years in order to set standards for stover collection that preserves the soil and feeds the cellulosic ethanol industry.
Vilsack, who traveled to Des Moines for the signing, said agriculture's success begins and ends with soil conditions.
"It's necessary that we do this in a sustainable way and that requires technical experience, information, and knowledge which we have at USDA," he said.
The experts at NRCS want to work with farmers "to give them the best strategies for how to maximize the cellulosic material for the fuel but also make sure that their soil continues to be productive," Vilsack said.
Vilsack said he hopes similar agreements will be reached with other companies building cellulosic plants. In the northern Iowa town of Emmetsburg, a $250 million cellulosic ethanol plant is being built by Sioux Falls, S.D.-based ethanol-maker POET and Royal DSM, a biotechnology company based in the Netherlands.
DuPont said it is working with 500 farmers around Nevada to collect enough stover.
Jim Collins, president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences, said the power of the agreement is that is takes all the knowledge gained through research to create standards that can be used broadly.
"We have great data with one farmer. Now we need 500 growers to produce 600,000 of these bales coming to our plant, at a rate of about one a minute," he said. "Doing that sustainably on a scale that makes economic sense is the real benefit to what we're doing here today."