By Mikkel Pates, Published August 10 2012
Drought aids energy beets project
CARRINGTON, N.D. – For most commercially grown crops, drought conditions aren’t welcome. But to a scientist studying the feasibility of a new crop – energy beets, for example – a year of drought is an opportunity.
“The 2012 season is frankly going to be a great season for us for this project,” says Blaine Schatz, agronomist and director of the Carrington Research Extension Center. “The year 2012 gives us something very different than 2009 and 2010, and – for most locations – 2011. We are getting some significant moisture stress. And if it continues, it will tell us what energy beets will do in parts of the state that are typically quite short of moisture.”
Energy beets for biofuel are intended for production areas outside of the Red River Valley where average precipitation amounts traditionally are significantly lower. The development effort is led by Green Vision Group Inc., a private consulting service to promote the use of beets for biofuel.
The company is working on the development of 12 to 16 energy beet-to-ethanol plants across the state, each producing 20 million gallons per year. The group has selected a first plant site, but hasn’t announced it, and expects to start producing ethanol in the fall of 2014.
Green Vision has rounded up $1 million in funding from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council and other organizations.
Besides North Dakota State University agronomists supervising the beet trials, the university’s economists separately are working toward getting energy beets qualified as an advanced biofuel, which allows the crop higher levels of federal support.
The Environmental Protection Agency has promised an answer on this in April of 2013. The beets technically are sugar beets, but without the latest breeding focus on sucrose.
This year, there are 14 energy beet demonstration and yield plots – five irrigated and nine nonirrigated – at 11 locations across North Dakota, Schatz says. The test plots in the Williston-area’s Nesson Valley, also are outside of the Yellowstone Valley area, where sugar beets are produced for table sugar.
“In 2012, with drier conditions, right now the beets are looking quite good,” Schatz says.
Beets are vulnerable to certain diseases over time and researchers are looking for them in the Carrington energy beet trials. They’re testing some beet varieties that have the full package of disease resistant traits and some that don’t.
One of the big reasons to explore energy beets is the benefit to crop rotations. “One of the things we sorely lack in this region is a deep-rooted crop,” Schatz says.
A deep-rooted crop would allow farmers to use soil moisture and soil fertility that is otherwise not used by other crops.
“It would use that excess moisture, yes, and that excess moisture is much of what’s caused the saline seep development,” Schatz says. A deep-rooted crop is a biological tool that otherwise requires tile drainage.
“Corn for most people is their deep-rooted crop, but we know the limitations of the fibrous root system of corn. It’s only going to go down so deep. A sunflower plant, a sugar beet plant with its tap root that goes much deeper is going to use water that might become excessive.”
Schatz says he thinks energy beets need a good five seasons of research data for farmers to have confidence in growing them and for the larger development of an industry.
“The number of seasons we need will depend on the amount of contrast we see in a given time,” Schatz says.
Given the success of the sugar beets in the Red River Valley and the success thus far for energy beet trials elsewhere, North Dakota could be a leader in the industry. He says this could be a new opportunity for economic development for growers and communities.