FORT KENT, Maine — The Center for Rural Sustainable Development at the University of Maine at Fort Kent has received a $62,334 grant to study farmer interest in large-scale grass biomass production, as well as the economic and market feasibility of grass biomass in the St. John Valley.
The study will gauge whether there is stakeholder interest, opportunity and the required physical, human, financial, and technological capital to create and maintain a grass biomass industry in northern Maine, in order to offset the high cost of heating, and to add value to the economy of St. John Valley in a sustainable way.
The study, Sustainable Heating in Fort Kent: A Biomass Initiative Case Study, is federally-funded through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the Sustainability Solutions Partners (SSP) project. The total project budget is $74,801, including a local share of $12,467.
Northern Maine is largely dependent on oil for heat, which makes it vulnerable to fluctuating prices. Currently, about 10 percent of local household income is used for home heating.
These conditions raise a question about whether grass biomass, an annually renewable resource, could benefit the local economy for households and small business owners. With producer interest, the existing farmland in the largest rural county east of the Mississippi River could create a market niche.
Research on the project will be conducted by UMFK faculty and undergraduate student interns, along with collaborators from the University of Maine, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and local stakeholders.
The goal of this year’s study is to determine market demand for a grass biomass industry, as well as producer capabilities. Previous work on the project resulted in two educational documentaries about grass biomass that will be used during consumer and producer outreach.
Undergraduate student interns will develop research questions, administer surveys, and lead focus groups to determine farmer perceptions and consumer interest. The interns will compile additional research to answer questions about what human, financial, physical and technological resources would be needed and to determine whether those resources exist locally, or can be imported.
Research into agricultural biomass yield estimates in Fort Kent, an essential part of determining market demand for grass biomass in northern Maine, was performed during last year’s study. This year, interns will perform further research into land resources in the Valley.
The interns also will assist in performing further research into the economic feasibility of local machinery production for the grass biomass industry, as well as researching other alternative fuels, including the use of grass mixed with wood biomass.
Farmers and SSP collaborators will work with the interns to assess the feasibility of using local banks and the farm credit system to provide start-up and working capital for production. They will work with potential industrial producers to find funding through other appropriate financial sources, such as the Northern Maine Development Commission and the Small Business Administration.
Research results from the study will be compiled and maintained at the Center for Rural Sustainability on the UMFK campus. The results will be disseminated, as needed, by stakeholders interested in grass biomass production, interested community members, and by university interests.
UMFK promotes the development and use of renewable biomass fuels as an important economic development opportunity for northern Maine. It is part of the University’s broader vision to model sustainable economic and environmental practices.
This past spring, the University dedicated the first of two biomass (wood-to-energy) heating systems planned for the campus. That system will provide heat for 1.75 acres of floor space and is expected to save the campus nearly $1 million in the next decade. A second biomass plant is expected to be online in late 2014. That system will power nine buildings on the main campus, as well as building on the adjacent Fort Kent Community High School campus.
The Center for Rural Sustainable Development at the University of Maine at Fort Kent envisions a region of resilient, durable and prosperous communities in northeastern Maine, and beyond. Its mission is to guide sustainability efforts by providing academic resources and quality information for improving lives and livelihoods, and safeguarding cultural and natural heritage for the future.