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Bio-greening the home turf

Eco-friendly, bio-based products made from agricultural and natural resources, are gaining popularity among U.S. consumers. And the largest U.S. consumer — the federal government — is now mandated to purchase bioproducts over their petroleum-based counterparts if they are available and equal in quality and price.

AURI’s Randy Hilliard wants to find ways to bring those advantages home.

Hilliard, AURI project director in Crookston, supports a local version of the federal BioPreferred program that gives federal agencies access to a catalog of bioproducts such as packaging material, lubricants, adhesives and other products. The program was mandated by the 2002 federal Farm Security and Rural Investment Act.

The federal program is gradually adding more products to its “preferred” list of bio-based products, which are defined as commercial or industrial goods (non-food or feed) made with a significant amount of biological, forestry or agricultural products. They are usually biodegradable or recyclable.

BioPreferred collects voluntary manufacturing and product information, including lab results of bio- ontent and other key information to aid agencies in selecting products. The program’s Web site lists hundreds of products, such as lubricants, industrial oils, starch-plastic cutlery, food containers, soaps,

cleaners, fuel additives, coolants, fertilizers, inks, building material and paint strippers.

Federal agencies purchase about $400 billion annually in goods and services. Many agencies using bioproducts “have found them to have comparable or superior performance to their petroleum counterparts,” states the BioPreferred Web site.

“We started looking at what we could do in Minnesota,” says Hilliard, who was hired by AURI in December 2005. “I was the new kid on the block so they gave the project to me.”

“The first thing I wanted to do was get a better handle on the industry — on companies manufacturing biomaterial.”

AURI contracted with the Southwest Marketing Assistance Center in Marshall to survey manufacturers and consumers on what drives the bioproducts market. “We wanted to find out what they are doing with them. If they aren’t making or using bioproducts, why not? What kinds of issues and problems are they running into?” Survey results were released this spring. (see story below)

“What we learned from consumers is there are many who don’t have the information they need,” Hilliard says. “From the manufacturers, it came down to marketing more than anything else. They said, ‘show me there is a market and we’ll make the products.’

“When I first started looking at this, I thought we would do more with manufacturing, figure out how to make more products and use our labs. A lot of them would make more products and could do it on their own if they can be shown there is a market.”

“That’s changed our thinking; how can we drive demand for these products?”

Hilliard has met with grower groups and state and local officials interested in getting a procurement program in Minnesota, similar to the federal BioPreferred. “We were going to do something on a state level but decided we should get a local model first to show some success and what works.”

AURI is working with the Rural Minnesota Energy Board that represents 17 counties in southwest Minnesota — a joint-powers board that initially dealt with wind-related projects. “We approached them to see if they would have an interest promoting bioproducts,” Hilliard says. “They recently passed a resolution encouraging all 17 counties to go this direction. So the direction now is to get a model going at a county level.”

AURI seeks to bring benefits of federal BioPrefferd program to Minnesota counties

Nobles, Redwood, Renville and Rock counties have passed resolutions saying they will promote bioproduct purchases over petroleum counterparts “if economically feasible and consistent with contracting law,” says Annette Bair, Energy Board coordinator.

“They’re using taxpayer money and understand the importance of supporting ag-based products.” Counties “may start looking at a department or two where bioproducts have made an inroad,” such as lubricants and janitorial products, she says.

Rural counties “background of support” for biofuels leads easily to bioproducts, Bair says. “Redwood County Highway Department is using 50 percent biofuels in the summertime. … The Minnesota Prairie Line train was the first in the country to use biofuels.”

“Education is key,” Bair says. She provided information to county boards and engineers that biodiesel will not cancel engine warranties. And AURI tests showed that clogged fuel filters blamed on biodiesel in 2005 may have had more to do with moisture in tanks. “Myths or misunderstandings happen with any new product.”

“They’re using taxpayer money to buy something and they want to make sure it’s a good product, good price and supporting the local economy.”

Blue Earth County Commissioner Colleen Landkamer, also a National Association of Counties director and former president “was instrumental in getting a ‘green initiative’ started where counties nationwide would purchase bioproducts,” Hilliard says.

Only four percent of ag commodities are used in industrial products but “the products have a higher value from small quantities,” Hilliard says.

“For example, in Minnesota we have medical-device manufacturers. If biobased materials go into plastic medical devices, a lot more potential value would go back to the producer … and it could benefit the state economically.”

“That’s our approach to try to build demand and awareness, starting with government agencies, and developing a good working model for them to develop a biopreferred procurement program.”

Hilliard says counties need help keeping an inventory of their purchases matched with bioproducts that could be replacements, “with an emphasis on what’s being made here,” he says. “Most are either soy-oil or corn-starch based — cleaners, packaging materials, plastics, films, lubricants. Others are agricultural fibers — like mats made of straw or wood fiber.”

“The United Soybean Board is really interested in what we’re doing — they want to use it as a national model.”