Cottonwood, Minn. — Jon Mohn is working on a new “screen-saver” program.
He has a warehouse full of grass-seed chaff and screenings — material he once threw away. Now he’s hoping to convert this biomass into pellets.
The southwest Minnesota entrepreneur and his wife Melissa grow, harvest and process native grass and wildflower seeds. Their seven-year-old company, Prairie Wild Enterprises, produces 6,000 acres of native prairie grasses and flowers, mainly for conservation plantings. Prairie Wild’s seed-cleaning plant generates about 350,000 pounds of screenings each season. The company has been trucking the waste to landfills or burning it — expensive and time-consuming burdens.
One day when Mohn was burning a load of seed chaff behind his 100-year-old farmhouse in Lyon County, he was thinking about his high home-heating bills and the irony of burning material that generates so much energy. “I thought, there’s got to be something I can do with it instead.”
Growing numbers of Minnesota ag processors are thinking the same thing, says Al Doering, head of AURI’s coproduct utilization program in Waseca. “They are generating a waste product that’s a burden or cost to get rid of.” Yet, that burden “is also an opportunity.” Today, all kinds of biomass materials are finding new uses as renewable fuel, fertilizer, feed and consumer products, Doering says.
For example, AURI is working with several businesses around the state that are burning or gasifying agricultural fibers to generate heat or electricity. Other Minnesota manufacturers are making livestock feed from biodiesel coproducts. Also in development: methane from thin corn stillage and fertilizer from ash.
New uses for seed screenings Prairie Wild is exploring the feasibility of using pelleted seed chaff in home heating stoves. Mulch pellets — used in hydroseeding — are another potential new use. Last year, Mohn experimented with both pellet types. Seedchaff pellets worked well as a wood substitute in home pellet stoves, Mohn says. “One of my employees heated his home all winter.” Hydroseeding pellets look promising, too, he says.
Now AURI will help Prairie Wild do a more comprehensive evaluation. Doering and the Mohns will look at seed-chaff pellet qualities, manufacturing methods, production costs and potential markets.
A biomass-pelleting operation could be a nice niche for the young company, Doering says. Bulky, low- alue biomass can’t be transported long distances at a profit. That opens the door for small-scale, local ventures — especially those that use biomass generated on-site, Doering says. “They don’t have to purchase the biomass or spend money to collect and transport it.” Prairie Wild already has a warehouse that could accommodate a pellet mill, he adds. And the processing could be done during the company’s slow season.
Mohn won’t commit to a pelleting expansion until he takes a hard look at manufacturing costs. “I’m convinced there is a market,” he says, but the economics are less certain. This isn’t the first biomass opportunity he’s investigated. “A few years ago, we looked at different uses for switchgrass” straw, including fiberboard.
Mohn, 34, grew up in Cottonwood and worked in his family’s grass-seed business from a young age. He studied aviation and electrical engineering in college, but his first love was conservation.
In 1999, Mohn began doing custom planting and maintenance for landowners enrolled in federal and state conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Reinvest in Minnesota.
“There was a real need for custom services” such as seeding, mowing, weed management and prescribed burnings, he says. Mohn also started an erosion-control business, seeding road right-of- ways and installing mulch blankets, constructing berms and inlet barriers and other erosion-control measures — “a nice sideline,” he says. Mohn sold that business last year.
Prairie Wild’s seeding business took off in 2002. “We grew really fast,” Mohn says. That year they kept 13 grain drills running, planting 16,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program acres in western and southern Minnesota. Prairie Wild has seeded more than 70,000 acres of conservation plantings, Mohn says.
In 2002, Prairie Wild also began raising native grass and wildflower seeds. “We were having a hard time finding good quality seed for our area,” Mohn says. “We wanted to be able to guarantee all our plantings,” but that’s difficult “without knowing exactly where the seed comes from.”
Prairie Wild added a seed cleaning and packaging facility in 2003. Today, native grass-seed production and sales are the company’s main focus. The Mohns grow about two dozen warm- and cool-season perennial-grass varieties and about four dozen prairie-wildflower varieties.
This season, Prairie Wild raised 6,000 acres of native prairie plants in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. The company’s four combines harvest from July 15 to November 1. The combines are equipped with 20-foot stripper heads, which leave nearly all the residue in the field for erosion control and wildlife habitat.
Prairie Wild, which employs 13 workers, still does some custom seeding and maintenance. But most of those services have been transferred to about 40 seed dealers around the Midwest. “Our main focus now is raising locally-grown seeds for this area and climate,” Mohn says. The company is also working to expand its dealer network.
The Mohns have expanded their product line, too, adding more grasses and wildflowers, “especially flower mixes for yards and gardens.” Prairie Wild sells 45 varieties of prairie grasses and more than 300 varieties of wildflowers, shipping seed throughout the Northern Great Plains and Canada.
The native seeds are used for buffer strips, filter strips, grass waterways, prairie restorations, wildlife habitat and food plots, pasture renovations, wetland and lakeshore restorations, green manure and cover crops, and specialty gardens.
Prairie Wild helps landowners understand the welter of government conservation programs. “We show people what they can do and what they can get paid for.” Mohn is active in volunteer conservation efforts, too, serving on the Lyon County SWCD board and a southwest Minnesota feedlot-improvement board. He also serves on the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association’s native grasses and forbs committee.
Conservation his passion Mohn’s newest conservation venture is a multi-media, environmental education program on wheels. It’s a revamped 53-foot show trailer equipped with computers, flat-screen video and hands-on demonstrations.
The project, a cooperative effort with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and several environmental groups, will travel to schools, fairs and trade shows to teach people about prairie ecology, erosion control and soil and water quality. Kids can design a native prairie, and adults can learn how to plant rain gardens, green roofs and other vegetation to protect the environment.
“This is my passion,” Mohn says, “creating habitat areas and working for clean water.”
For more about Prairie Wild Enterprises, go to www.prairiewild.com