Champion for change

Jerry Taylor’s vision for the future of MFA Oil Co. is much like that of any farmer: to leave behind a business that can not only survive, but also thrive. And the company CEO is willing to venture into the state’s farm fields to make it happen.

Last year, MFA Oil Co. teamed up with Aloterra Energy to form MFA Oil Biomass LLC, a separate small business designed to lead the cooperative into the renewable energy field. MFA Oil Biomass is a vertically integrated renewable energy system, which relies on Miscanthus giganteus, or giant miscanthus, as its energy source.

Taylor says the system provides farmers an “energy crop source, unique harvesting and planting equipment for the crop’s rhizomes, specialty harvesting services for the mature crop, processing technology, and marketing services to get the best return for the farmer and cooperative.”

The goal is to have 150,000 acres in central and southwest Missouri, as well as Arkansas, planted in giant miscanthus. To date, there are 18,000 acres contracted for production of this noninvasive perennial crop, predominately grown on marginal land.

Garnering awards

The White House recently recognized Taylor’s efforts to advance alternative energy in the Midwest. He was one of nine individuals honored as a Champion of Change Innovator in Renewable Energy.

The award is part of President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future initiative, which recognizes individuals ranging from educators to entrepreneurs to community leaders, for their work in serving and strengthening their communities.

Taylor is quick to point out that it is not solely his award. He credits cooperation from the USDA, Farm Service Agency’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program, and farmers for investing in the system. “They are all a part of this Champion for Change award,” he says.

Embracing change

Taylor admits that he is not afraid of change. “I have my ear to the ground all the time,” he says. “I have never seen any industry change as much as the energy industry is today.”

But embracing new concepts is actually a rich tradition with MFA Oil Co.

“There have only been three leaders of this company since it began in 1929,” explains Tom May, MFA Oil director of public relations. “And each individual has added something valuable to the future of the company.”

Today the company boasts a wide array of services, which includes supplying fuels, lubricants and propane to seven states. It also owns a series of convenience stores and tire franchises.

“We are comfortable looking at new ideas and taking managed risks to ensure that we not only survive in the future, but also flourish,” Taylor adds. “That is the nature of our company. That is the people we have here. They are progressive.”

Foreseeing the future

Taylor and MFA Oil Co.’s calculated risk into giant miscanthus could reap huge rewards for the state if the biomass industry comes to fruition.

“Just think, if five years from now, somebody makes great strides in cellulosic ethanol and we sit on the largest biomass source in the U.S.; there is no question they will locate a plant here,” Taylor says.

However, he admits there are no guarantees. Nevertheless, he contends, “We have put a lot of work and analysis into this, and there is a lot that makes sense about it.”

If MFA Oil Biomass reaches its full potential, Taylor estimates the acreage would create equivalent to 125 million barrels of oil in five years. He projects that farmers can earn $400 per acre net profit from those small marginal acreages.

“I believe this is an opportunity for biomass crops to grow as a viable renewable energy source,” he says. “This is a game-changer.”

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PROMISING FUTURE: Jerry Taylor sees a bright future for Missouri’s newest cash crop, Miscanthus giganteus, or giant miscanthus. His work to help farmers grow and market the energy crop gained national attention this past year.

This article published in the October, 2012 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.