OXFORD, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's farm economy, already the state's largest industry, could be nearing a milestone as policymakers and business executives take another stab at betting on ethanol.
An Italian company's Wilmington-based subsidiary is geared up to build a factory that can convert grassy plants into fuel for cars and trucks amid Sampson County's hog and turkey growers.
With financial and verbal encouragement from local, state and federal governments, the company has picked a site that takes advantage of the smelly concentration of industrial-scale hog farming operations. The idea is it can get a relatively cheap, abundant supply as hog farmers grow fuel plants on land used to absorb the dirty but nutrient-rich water from their waste-holding lagoons.
"I'm sure that there would be a lot of people that would be interested in doing that. It just depends on what your situation is," said farmer Gerald Warren of Newton Grove, who has attended community meetings about the project. But he doubts he'll replace the Bermuda grass that now soaks up nutrients from the wastewater of about 100,000 hogs a year, since he feeds all the hay he can grow to the 900 cattle he also raises.
"It could be a good thing," Warren said of Chemtex International's plans. "I'm certainly not negative toward it."
The project may be the most promising project yet to come out of an unusual, four-year-old effort to boost North Carolina's agriculture with a wave of field-grown alternative fuel stocks. The Biofuels Center of North Carolina has produced economic estimates that project profits for both ethanol-maker Chemtex and pork producers in Duplin, Sampson and Wayne counties now using nearly 100,000 acres as sprayfields.
The Oxford-based Biofuels Center has gotten $20 million from taxpayers for its 10-year mission of establishing a biofuels industry that converts grasses, wood pulp and even algae into motor fuels the future may demand. The center calls itself the nation's only state agency with a mission to help businesses, universities and others involved in the science, growing, production and logistics of biofuels.
"Anyplace that can grow has the capability for biofuels," Biofuels Center President Steven Burke said. But "North Carolina is perfectly suited, for we have diversity of land, growing conditions and climate able to grow a large variety of fuel plants."
Chemtex hopes to "take some pretty marginal land, land that's not producing major value to farmers, like sprayfield land. We see that as an opportunity," project manager Allana Whitney said.
The ethanol plant is waiting for the U.S. Agriculture Department to approve a loan guarantee. The state's first ethanol plant went bankrupt last year despite $35 million in USDA loan guarantees and millions more in loans and private investment. That Raeford-based company couldn't produce ethanol cheaply enough after surging demand for corn from developing countries drove up the price.
Chemtex is looking to imitate the world's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, which its parent company Gruppo Mossi & Ghisolfi expects to open soon in northwestern Italy. Cellulosic ethanol comes from non-food plants, in contrast to the fuel factories that have depended for decades on corn or other food grains.
The Biofuel Center thinks the Chemtex site near Clinton could be the first of more than a dozen ethanol plants statewide, each employing several dozen workers. The ethanol operations and the jobs will be spread out because the plants used for fuel are heavy and too expensive to transport far, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a visit to the biofuels center last month.