Big opportunities for non-food crops

There are massive opportunities for biomass growers in north-east England, according to Drax Power‘s Robert Wood. The firm invested £50m in a new direct-injection facility that allowed them to co-fire a range of biomass crops with conventional fossil fuels.

Mr Wood said the annual biomass requirement would increase from 400,000 tonnes to 1.5m tonnes by 2010, producing 10% of the plant’s energy. “We want as much of this from UK biomass as possible,” he said.

Drax had a 50-mile catchment and 10-year, index-linked grower contracts were available through various intermediaries, including Bical (miscanthus) and farmer-controlled Regro (short-rotation coppice (SRC) willow and miscanthus), he said.

“We supply a number of power stations, schools and businesses, but Drax is our biggest customer,” said Regro’s Tony Holmes. A typical “equalised crop return” to members worked out at about £30 per oven-dried tonne, after haulage and harvest costs, he said. “You can generally budget on 28odt/ha.”


There are plenty of opportunities for growing biomass crops such as miscanthus, particularly in north-east England

Sembcorp biomass power station in the Tees Valley was also looking to recruit more SRC growers. The £60m station became the UK’s first large-scale “wood-to-energy” plant last October and used 300,000 tonnes of wood a year.

The firm’s Steve Bishop said the aim was to increase the amount of SRC grown for the plant from 100ha to 3,000ha. “I don’t think anyone will take up fields of wheat, but if you’ve got marginal land, land prone to flooding or simply want to diversify, then it’s worth considering.”

Contracts lasted 10 years and were index-linked, with prices of about £61 per odt, excluding harvest and haulage, he said.

Coppice Resources‘ Barbara Hilton said suppliers of CRL’s wood pellet plant in Nottinghamshire could also sign up to a 10-year, index-linked contract. Prices averaged about £15/odt, including all harvesting and haulage.

“There is no shortage of opportunities for growers in the north-east,” she said. “At the moment you’ve got to be within the catchment area of an end-user to qualify for the establishment grant, but Natural England is looking at loosening that up.”

Morphine poppies

About 2,700ha of morphine poppies were in the ground for this harvest and although the market was relatively stable, Peter Guy of Johnson Matthey Macfarlan Smith said there could be more opportunities in 2009.

He said his firm was the only legitimate supplier of morphine in the UK and had growers in various parts of southern England, plus some around Lincoln. “That’s probably as far north as we’d go,” he added.

For harvest 2008, the company paid a base rate of £350/ha, plus a bonus of £35/kg of alkaloid produced. “An average crop is likely to produce about 11kg/ha, which gives you another £370/ha,” he said. The base price was paid in three instalments and the company supplied the seed, all agronomy and performed the harvesting. Future contracts were likely to feature a lower base price and higher alkaloid premium, putting more emphasis on the grower to improve crop quality, said Mr Guy.

Sites needed free-draining, alkaline soils and ideally should be over 25ha, he said. Farms also needed their own on-floor drying.

Grain maize

UK demand for grain maize is about 2.5m tonnes, yet home-grown supply is virtually zero, according to the Maize Growers Association. “There are some farmer-to-farmer sales for feed, but nearly all UK grain maize for the food chain is imported,” said the MGA’s John Morgan. “It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. The quantities required by big customers (for example, supermarkets) are generally too big for any one grower to meet.”

Quality and consistency of supply were the two main problems that prevented UK growers taking a slice of the market, but both could be overcome, he said.

Modern varieties offered better grain quality and could be harvested earlier than older types – typically late October or early November, he said. “It means you can now get a decent sample in UK conditions.” More careful two-stage drying would also help protect quality and prevent problems such as cracked grains that resulted from drying too quickly, he added.

Potential net margins of about £450/ha compared well with winter wheat (£500/ha) and break crops such as winter oilseed rape (£260/ha) and winter oats (£330/ha), said Mr Morgan. “But drying costs can be considerable, because crops are often harvested at over 30% moisture.”