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ELY — For U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, infrastructure is not just about investing in roads and bridges and broadband internet. It’s also about investing in the future and inspiring innovation, he says.
Like using corn to make yoga pants. Or using anaerobic digestion on a cattle feedlot to break down manure and food waste into methane that can generate electricity.
At an event Tuesday at Dan and Debbie’s Creamery in Ely, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and former Iowa governor announced funding for a program created under the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden.
“Dan and Debbie represent the many American farmers, families and communities USDA is called to serve,” Vilsack said. “This pilot program is a critical part of USDA’s commitment to enhancing the circular economy and providing additional revenue streams for farmers. This program will help farmers take field residues and waste products and turn them into value-added products that create wealth and drive economic development in rural areas.”
Under the program, the USDA will award up to $10 million divided among the highest-rated applications that include eligible universities and private-sector partners.
Vilsack said the initiative will help build a bio-based economy in America by finding ways to turn agriculture residue into products for consumers and construction.
“What does that mean? It means taking everything that’s grown and raised and produced on a farm, and turning it into something more valuable,” Vilsack said. “That includes not just the corn and soybeans, not just the livestock that can be processed, but also all of the waste product.”
He pointed to construction of a $300 million chemical plant in Southeast Iowa’s Eddyville that will use corn to make fabric and other materials.
The project — a joint venture of Cargill and HELM, a chemical company based in Germany — will produce a chemical called Qira, developed from corn sugar instead of from fossil fuels, said Jill Zullo, managing director for bio-intermediates at Cargill.
Qira can cut up to 93 percent of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to traditional fossil sources, according to Cargill. The chemical is used to manufacture spandex and athletic wear.
Carbon dioxide trapped by corn creates starch. Sugars from the starch are then fermented into butanediol, with Qira being extracted, Zullo said.
The facility is being built on Cargill’s existing Eddyville campus and is scheduled to open in summer 2024.
“We would sell Qira to the spandex maker, then that spandex maker sells it to lululemon, Nike, Under Armour,” Zullo said.
Vilsack said investment is part of the Biden administration’s ongoing work to create good-paying jobs, lower greenhouse gas emissions and boost economic opportunity in rural communities.
After getting the initial grant and once equipped with a “road map” for how to create a bio-based product that can become a consumer product or construction material, Vilsack said applicants can then tap into and more easily navigate existing grant and loan assistance programs through the USDA and the infrastructure bill in the hopes of accelerating “climate-smart agriculture practices,” like those of Bryan Sievers.
Sievers owns and manages a beef cattle feedlot in Stockton, outside of Davenport.
Looking to expand his feeding operation, but wanting to do so "in a very sustainable fashion,“ Sievers built an anaerobic digester in 2013 with the help of a $500,000 grant through the USDA. He also received an USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program and an energy grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Sievers said the farm generates enough electricity from methane produced from the digester, which it sells to Alliant Energy, to power 1,000 homes.
“It’s really meant a way for us to grow our beef cattle industry in a way that reduces our carbon footprint,” Sievers said. “We just think it’s an excellent opportunity to manage our risk and our farming operation, and create another way to generate cash flow in ways we think are very sustainable.”
Sievers said methane produced by the digester has provided a steady stream of revenue to buffer against volatile commodity prices.
“Profitability in cattle feeding can be very cyclical,” he said. “You can lose a lot of money. You can make a lot of money. … Cattle profits are going to come and go, but they're going to (defecate) every single day.”
Sievers said the business is now looking at expanding its digester facility to produce renewable natural gas that would be injected into a pipeline and turned into compressed or liquid natural gas to be used as transportation fuel.
“A program like this will help us look down the road and potentially expand,” he said. “And, hopefully, other facilities will be able to come in and do the same kinds of things we’ve been doing in our farming operation for the last nine years.”
Complete information on this funding can be found at www.nifa.usda.gov/grants/funding-opportunities/bioproduct-pilot-program.
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