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Missouri Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Awards

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First published in Ozarks Farm and Neighbor, Dec. 29, 2003; reprinted with permission


By Kay Hively
OFN Contributor

When James Ziler, of Avilla, Mo., went as a missionary to the West Indies, he never dreamed that his work there would create a different kind of mission back home in the Ozarks. But, an idea that germinated in the mission field has taken root in Jasper County, Missouri.

While serving in Haiti, Ziler worked to solve problems caused by the loss of that country's forest land.

"With the destruction of so much of the forest, the lack of fuel was a problem. I began looking for a way to grow renewable fuels," Ziler explains. "I needed something that would grow fast so I began researching and testing switchgrass as a fuel."

Ziler, who has a bachelor's degree in agronomy and a masters degree in agricultural education, returned to the United States three years ago, bringing his interest in switchgrass with him.

After missions in Brazil and Haiti with his wife and three daughters, Ziler came back to his home on the prairie. Settling in on his farm at Avilla, he devoted part of his 340 acres to the switchgrass project.

Working on two fronts, Ziler is attacking the problem which he feels is vital to the future of this country and, indeed, the world. On one front, he is working directly with switchgrass, a native warm season plant very much at home in the Ozarks. On the second front, he is trying to find or develop a heating stove that will accommodate the use of switchgrass-based fuel pellets.

Early in his work, Ziler purchased a small pellet mill. Using that mill he has experimented with pure switchgrass pellets as well as pellets which include other agricultural crops such as corn, soybeans, sunflowers or milo.

The greatest drawback to switchgrass is the residue it leaves.

"It leaves large silicon clinkers, which are glass-like clumps," Ziler explains. "Getting rid of these is the problem."

By combining switchgrass with other materials, he is making headway in reducing the ash and clinker problem. However, the best results come from natural plants with high oil content such as soybeans or sunflowers. Unfortunately, these are the last economical additives, making the process cost prohibitive.

Working as an independent researcher has been expensive. To help fund his project, Ziler runs his own farm and works for Murphy Family Farms, a large hog operation in Avilla. But work on the project this winter may be less painful to the family budget, thanks to a sustainable agricultural grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. A $3,000 grant was awarded this past spring, but Ziler has held off from doing the research until this fall.

"I didn't want to waste the hot months, so I've waited until the weather turned cold. Now the heat I will be producing can actually be used," Ziler says. "I'm really just getting into the project, and I hope to have some results in the spring."

Using the pellet mill he now stores in a family-owned building, Ziler will produce a variety of pellets. Using his own stove at home and other stoves provided by a local stove company, Ziler will calculate the results of the various pellet formations.

Once he has developed the best, most efficient, and cost effective pellet, Ziler hopes to interest other farmers in the project and then form a New Generation Cooperative. Having a farm cooperative will provide an adequate supply of raw material for the pellet making process. In addition, local farmers will be able to get seed and other supplies necessary to raise enough switch grass to keep the pellet mill running.

"To have a co-op, we need farmers who believe in and are willing to invest in this project. To get them interested, we need to prove this will work and that a market is waiting," Ziler says. "Farmers are not going to work with this if they can't be sure there is a market for their products."

James Ziler is not the only one doing switchsgrass research. The University of Georgia, the University of Tennessee, Auburn University, the University of Nebraska, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Oklahoma State University are just a few of the institutions doing energy crop research. They, along with James Ziler, believe that crops such as switchsgrass are at least part of the answer to the great need for fuel in America. While large institutions are working with five and six figure grants, Ziler is determined to make the most of his $3,000 grant.

The Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Program is a University Outreach and Extension program, administered jointly by the University of Missouri System and Lincoln University, in collaboration with the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and with support from the Bonnie Clark Fund for Sustainable Agriculture.

Questions? Comments? Please contact Joan Benjamin at: