A small step forward…

While a blown out BP oil well is gushing thousands of barrels of crude each day into the Gulf of Mexico, a shiny new plant at Hopewell, Va., is beginning to process the first few gallons of ethanol from locally grown barley.

Although estimates vary greatly on how much oil might actually be spewing into the Gulf on a daily basis, it’s fairly certain the Appomattox Bio Energy Plant at Hopewell will eventually produce about 65 million gallons of barley ethanol per year. There is a problem of epic proportions in the Gulf and a little ray of fresh sunshine in the upper Southeast.

Ground was broken for the Bio Energy plant in October of 2008 and things have now reached the point where barley has been delivered and test batches have been run. Commercial production is expected in the next couple months.

The plant has had its detractors, with some saying it would benefit wealthy people living along the James River bluffs in and around Hopewell, but would deprive poor people living near the plant their quality of life. Others contend the plant will strain the water supply. There have also been some questions concerning storage of the barley itself. While not everyone is happy with the plant, overall it should benefit the region and its farmers.

Initially, plant officials have said, they may be forced to take barley from outside the area, but as time goes on they want to target production from seven states — Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina. Plans are to market the finished product locally as well.

Osage Bio has pushed hard the last couple years to increase barley production in the area and the efforts seem to be paying off. In Virginia alone, growers are in the process of harvesting a crop nearly double what was seen last year.

They tout the benefits of barley over wheat in a double-crop scheme. Barley comes off about two weeks earlier than wheat, giving growers a jump start on a following crop of soybeans with, hopefully, higher yields.

Another benefit to the region would be a by-product of the ethanol process called barley meal. This is a high quality livestock feed that should find a ready market.

Researchers at Virginia Tech have joined in, with projects under way evaluating improved barley production systems, better varieties, etc.

Estimates are it will take 30 million bushels of barley annually to run the plant and that would seem a welcome opportunity for the region’s growers who are always looking for additional, profitable crops. Also, the city of Hopewell itself is expected to take in $2 million annually in additional tax revenue.

The Hopewell plant won’t begin to fill the nation’s energy needs, but it is a step forward and a boost to the region. What is happening in the Gulf, on the other hand … well, what can you say?

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