Feds plan biomass projects in Ohio, Missouri, Ark.

The U.S. Agriculture Department will begin signing up farmers in four states this summer who are willing to grow a hybrid grass that can be converted into heat and electricity.

Growing and processing the grass into energy has the potential to create 4,000 jobs in Ohio, Arkansas and Missouri, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.

The government will spend $20 million over the next few years paying farmers in those three states and in three Pennsylvania counties near Ohio to grow the bamboo-like grass that can grow up to 13 feet high.

It's money well spent, Vilsack said, because the projects will create jobs, reduce dependency on foreign oil and allow farmers to use land that isn't as suitable to growing corn and soybeans.

"We've got to encourage people to take the risk," he said.

Agriculture officials are planning to spend $5.7 million this year to enroll farmers in seven counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Cleveland-based Aloterra Energy will operate a biomass plant in northeast Ohio near Ashtabula to process the grass into small pellets that can be burned at power plants.

Two more projects are going to central and southwest Missouri. Farmers in those areas will feed into biomass conversion plants in Columbia and Aurora. MFA Oil Biomass LLC will operate both.

Another project in northwest Arkansas will include farmers in seven counties and a biomass plant in Paragould, which also will be operated by MFA Oil Biomass.

Estimates released by the Agriculture Department say the projects could create 1,200 jobs in Ohio, a combined 1,900 jobs in Missouri and 750 jobs in Arkansas. Those include agriculture, bio-refinery and support jobs.

The government will pay farmers 75 percent of the startup costs to begin planting the grass and then make annual payments in the following years, Vilsack said.

"There are a lot of good reasons to do this," said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, who joined Vilsack in announcing the projects.

The Farm Service Agency will oversee the program. Farmers can begin signing up next Monday.

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