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Is tobacco the future of fuel? 2 farmers, brothers cultivate tobacco for ethanol research

Brothers Bruce, 33, and Mark, 35, Jenkins participated in an agronomic trial for Tyton BioEnergy Systems last summer to grow a one-acre test plot of the company’s energy tobacco. Tyton will test the tobacco later this year to see if locally grown tobacco can be used to produce ethanol. Photo By Zirconia Alleyne

Brothers Bruce, 33, and Mark, 35, Jenkins participated in an agronomic trial for Tyton BioEnergy Systems last summer to grow a one-acre test plot of the company’s energy tobacco. Tyton will test the tobacco later this year to see if locally grown tobacco can be used to produce ethanol. Photo By Zirconia Alleyne

By Zirconia Alleyne
Two brothers who have been farming for as long as they can remember are working on a new way to make money from their tobacco crop.
Mark and Bruce Jenkins — who grow corn, wheat, soybeans and tobacco — participated in an agronomic trial for a biofuel research and development company out of Virginia called Tyton BioEnergy Systems.
Last summer, the duo dedicated one acre of tobacco on their farm to the project. The crop will be tested to see if its sugar levels are conducive to making ethanol. If so, Hopkinsville could become an even bigger hub for ethanol production and area farmers could get more cash for their crop.
Ethanol is a higher octane fuel that is produced from corn, sugar cane, grasses and now tobacco. Ethanol has been championed as the fuel to improve engine performance in vehicles, reduce the need for imported fuels and possibly lower gas prices.
Locally, ethanol is produced only from corn at the state’s lone corn-to-ethanol facility, Commonwealth Agri-Energy, on Pembroke Road. However, in states like North Carolina and Virginia, tobacco farmers have already hopped on the tobacco-to-ethanol wagon, and many of them, like Bruce and Mark, have been approached by Tyton.
“Christian County is unique in that there’s an ethanol facility nearby both corn and tobacco fields,” said President of Tyton BioEnergy Sytems Peter Majeranowski.
The company contracts farmers to grow a patented “energy tobacco” that is high in fermentable sugar and oil, low in nicotine and grown in a high-plant population per acre. The sugar and oils are then extracted from the tobacco for ethanol and biodiesel.
“The technique has long been established for other industries,” Majeranowski said. “We adapted the technology for agriculture and specifically our energy tobacco.”
Knowing that ethanol production is a growing market along the east coast, Mark and Bruce were all in when they were contacted by Tyton’s Field Operations Manager Jennifer Atkins, who oversees agronomic trials across the U.S.
“Once we got hooked in with them, they needed somebody to do it, and we jumped in,” Bruce said. “It was a small plot, so we didn’t mind doing it.”
The brothers said farming has always been a family affair, they’ve been farming on their own for 10-12 years. Depending on the year, they grow 100 acres or more of tobacco.
“We were pretty much raised in (farming) our entire lives,” Mark said.
During a visit to Kentucky last year, Atkins met the Jenkins brothers, who decided to see if growing tobacco for ethanol could turn into a lucrative opportunity for farmers in the Pennyrile.
The brothers planted the test plot in May and took samples every 10 days when the tobacco was at “topping level.” The samples have been stored in a freezer since then.
“That was just to preserve the sugar so it would be like you harvested it that day, that way the sugar levels would all stay the same while they did their tests,” Bruce said. “If it ever went into true production, we wouldn’t freeze it. They would just use it.”
The entire freezer of frozen tobacco will be sent to Tyton for analysis sometime this year. Majeranowski said via email that the crop would be tested “in the coming months.”
“We look for a variety of characteristics including biomass yield, sugar concentration, and overall plant health,” Majeranowski said.
If the tobacco grown in the Pennyrile is favorable for producing ethanol, there could be some new, profitable opportunities for local farmers.
According to Tytonbio.com, one acre of Tyton energy tobacco can produce three times more ethanol than corn. With that being said, there could be some opportunities for the local ethanol plant, too.
Mick Henderson, general manager at Commonwealth Agri-Energy, is keeping one eye open just in case Tyton moves forward with the process. He thinks Christian County would be the ideal location for Tyton to test out a large-scale tobacco-to-ethanol operation if the project works out.
“If you want to have synergies with an ethanol plant, you don’t have a better site in the United States than the only ethanol plant that is in the middle of a large, tobacco-growing region,” he said. “If you want a trial location, this is it.”
Currently, Agri-Energy shells out 33 million gallons of ethanol, all from 12 million bushels of corn. The co-op owned facility has the capacity and air permit to produce 35 million gallons.
According to Fueleconomy.gov, ethanol use in the U.S. increased from 1.7 billion gallons in 2001 to nearly 13.2 billion gallons in 2013. The spike in usage could be credited to newer model automobiles using Flex Fuel, or E-85, which is an ethanol-gasoline blend.
Henderson said the ethanol from the facility is mostly used for E-10 gas — which contains 10 percent ethanol — and is sold in the Metro-Nashville market to Exxon Mobile, Shell, BP and Marathon.
“Most of our ethanol sprinkles (to gas stations) throughout the region in E-10 gas,” Henderson said. “Every gallon of gasoline in Kentucky and Tennessee has at least 10 percent ethanol. It’s not labeled in Kentucky, but it has to be labeled in Tennessee.”
Henderson is excited about the growing demand for ethanol and the possibility of using tobacco to make it.
“They are continually looking for ways to reduce tobacco use, and at the same time, have the farmer who still depends on tobacco for income, have alternatives — that’s where this all comes in,” Henderson said. “We want to still be involved and encourage whatever those possibilities may be.”
Once the tests are done, the Jenkins brothers will find out if Christian County’s soil, weather and environment produce tobacco with a high enough sugar content to make ethanol. It looks like everyone is optimistic.
“Hopefully, it’s something else that tobacco can be used for and puts some more competition into the market,” Bruce said. “Hopefully, it helps us locally and our ethanol plant and diversifies it.”

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