Life in the green lane: What it takes to build a thriving Miscanthus bio-economy

15th July 2021

Demand for Miscanthus has grown rapidly in recent years. We catch up with Alex Robinson, Terravesta’s chief operating officer, to find out what it takes to build a forward-thinking revolutionary farming business with big ambitions…

Starting with the big picture, what would you say is Terravesta’s core objective?

Our core ambition is to reduce the use of fossil fuels through upscaling the planting of dedicated Miscanthus crops on unproductive land.

What sort of scale are we talking?

To reach the UK’s net zero targets, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommends that we accelerate planting of perennial crops such as Miscanthus at a rapid rate, to at least 30,000 hectares per year by 2035, this increase could sequester 2 MtCO2e by 2035 and over 6 MtCO2e by 2050.

What are you doing to upscale planting?

We are dedicated to enabling upscaling of Miscanthus planting and we have a science and R&D team and a tech department to pave the way for more Miscanthus area and grow more sustainable end-uses. We’re developing new rhizome and seed-based hybrids which perform better in the field, and our seed-based hybrids are key to upscaling.

You can only propagate rhizome once every three years, as it needs to grow to the right size. One hectare of a propagated rhizome crop yields 20 hectares of root stock. With seed, a one hectare crossing block can produce 2,000 hectares of new crop, so the potential is vastly more scaleable.

What progress have you already made?

Benefits to growers:

Since we started in 2012, we’ve brought the cost of haulage down significantly.

We’ve increased returns to growers by improving harvest techniques and we hold annual contractor forums to knowledge-share.

The forums have resulted in increased bale weights.

In 2012, the average moisture content of bales was 19%, and in 2020 it was 11.9%.

The haulage average bale weight was 525kg and now its 620kg which means an increase of 18% on each load, from 18.9 tonnes to 22.32 tonnes, which amounts to £200k/year saved in haulage costs.

When we started out, we had a long-term contract with one renewable power station, now we have contracts with four.

We’ve supported and subsidised the haulage for regions which didn’t have a local market.

Harvest Hub

This is our toolkit to provide growers with vital information such as carbon yield and crop performance.

Carbon yield is linked to the above ground biomass and this is why we need to have harvest declarations by field. It’s not to annoy growers – honest!

We need that data to provide growers with carbon yield so that they can substantiate claims, and use that data in whatever way they choose, to offset farm emissions, or trade the carbon.

The harvest hub will keep improving and feedback from growers will be crucial here and this is why we now have a dedicated customer accounts manager, Mark Coleman.

We’ve also had to adjust payment terms because we’ve collected and delivered bales in a four-month window this year, ahead of cereal harvest. When we set up the business, we had to deliver all year round, so to pay for the rapid collection and delivery, we’ve had to phase payments.

Growing end-markets:

The now highly competitive cost of sustainable energy has stimulated the development of renewables, such as bioenergy, and the subsequent rapid growth of a global plant-based bioeconomy.

Miscanthus is central to the global bioeconomy, being a core feedstock into existing markets for large-scale heat and power generation. Second-generation markets such as biorefining similarly value Miscanthus for advanced end-uses, including degradable bio-plastics, pharmaceuticals, bio-ethanol and biogas production.

Other energy intensive industries that are actively transitioning towards low carbon similarly value Miscanthus as a substitute to traditional materials, due to its fibrous properties which are already being successfully used in construction, packaging and furniture making.

R&D

We work closely with IBERS, Aberystwyth University, to try to understand Miscanthus crops and improve them from agronomy, soil and plant health, to remediation and harvesting techniques.

We’re also working with 21 other partners in the GRACE project, to show how Miscanthus can be refined for advanced end-uses, including replacements for industrial chemicals, building materials, composite materials such as plastics, medicine, cosmetics and for use as a biological herbicide.

Through GRACE we’re also showing that Miscanthus has potential use on marginal land, which includes areas that have been polluted for example by heavy metals or are unattractive for food production due to lower yields.

Policy

Since 2019, we’ve been working on a carbon project to understand the carbon life-cycles of Miscanthus. In spring 2021 we launched our carbon report which shows that the crop is net carbon negative, capturing net 0.64 tonnes of carbon (2.35 tonnes CO2e) per hectare, per year in the soil at the very least.

We constantly review our business processes and ability to audit crops, so we can hand back value to the grower.

We also consult various government bodies on the ELM scheme, we have been supplying numerous data since 2019 to help shape policy.

What does the future hold for Miscanthus?

It’s a very exciting time for both farming and industry. There is a big drive to decarbonise agriculture and farm in a more environmentally friendly way to improving soil health and reduce inputs for a more regenerative approach, and Miscanthus ticks many of these boxes as well as being profitable on marginal land.

It’s our mission to increase planting, and we have just launched a new finance package with Oxbury bank to cover virtually all upfront costs for crop establishment, as well as new direct, long-term offtake agreements with end-users, with 10–15-year index-linked annual returns.

We are also building our end-markets which will include more renewable energy power plants in future, as well as a host of other sustainable uses, including construction materials, ‘miscreet’ – a concrete alternative, and bioplastics.

Please get in touch with Alex directly to have a chat.

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