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The North Dakota Industrial Commission approved an $83,810 Renewable Energy Program grant to Midwest AgEnergy Group to research using North Dakota barley for biofuel and a high value protein concentrate byproduct to sell to commercial fisheries.

For nearly three years, Dakota Spirit AgEnergy near Jamestown has fed area cattle with the distillers grain left from its corn ethanol production. Next, it aims to add commercial fish food to its repertoire.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission approved an $83,810 Renewable Energy Program grant to Midwest AgEnergy Group to research using North Dakota barley for biofuel and a high value protein concentrate byproduct to sell to commercial fisheries.

“It’s a higher value market than where we’re currently participating at this time,” when compared to cattle feed, said Jeff Zueger, CEO for Midwest AgEnergy Group, adding that the company is continuously looking for best and additional uses at its Jamestown and Underwood plants.

The concept for the barley biofuel was developed and has been pilot tested by Montana Microbial Products, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Zueger said.

This phase of Midwest AgEnergy Group’s project would study the feasibility and conduct initial engineering and design work for scaling production to a commercial level, producing 50 times the 30 tons per month made by the Montana company.

“This is an exciting first step in a project that could lead to additional markets for barley while creating new market opportunities for North Dakota in the aquaculture industry. Additionally, this would be the first ethanol in North Dakota produced from a feedstock other than corn,” the North Dakota Industrial Commission, consisting of Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, said in a joint statement.

This first study will take six weeks, including engineering and design, researching what price points farmers would require to grow barley under contract for the plant and quantifying the fish meal market in the region, according to Zueger.

There aren’t any major commercial fish feeding operations in North Dakota, so the product would have to be shipped out of state to fisheries in Minnesota and South Dakota. Zueger said Midwest AgEnergy would be targeting high-end carnivorous fish farms raising salmon and trout.

Should the concept prove out in this first phase, it would likely see more engineering work and possible construction in 2019. The barley operation would be built and run alongside Dakota Spirit’s 25-million bushel annual corn ethanol production, sharing processing equipment where possible, Zueger said.

The plant also would have the potential benefit of helping to rebound barley production in the state. According to the North Dakota Barley Council, acreage planted in the state has declined from 1.6 million acres planted in 2008 to 800,000 in 2016, with a low of 400,000 acres in 2011. Barley is often used on farms as cattle feed or its grown under contract with breweries for malting.

“We appreciate the support that we have been granted by the state of North Dakota .... The project that we are developing represents an opportunity that would increase the value of agricultural products grown here in the state to help meet the world’s demand for high-quality protein feed ingredients,” Zueger said.

The Legislature established the Renewable Energy Program in 2007 to provide funding for research, development, marketing and education to grow renewable energy, including wind, biofuels, biomass, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and hydrogen.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com

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Business Reporter