If you looked down on it from outer space, the Mid-South Mississippi Delta region would appear as a gigantic green blob – one of the largest collections of biomass on the planet. With rich, deep soils, plenty of water, and long, lazy summers, the area is capable of sprouting just about anything, and in fact it does – from the hated kudzu vine to some of the world’s best music and literature (and almost everything in between)!
This Delta region features the historic, geographic floodplain of the Mighty Muddy and all its surrounding hillsides. It is no accident that agriculture – cotton and hardwood initially – evolved over two centuries to form the region’s base economy, which now includes corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, grain sorghum, softwood, and a large number of “boutique crops”.
Moving forward, this region finds itself in a unique position in the still-evolving biobased, renewable economy. A combination of assets, including existing transportation and manufacturing infrastructures, give the region unprecedented opportunities in the many emerging industries whose goal is the ultimate replacement of petroleum-based products with sustainable resources. That’s all outlined in an amazing new study done for the Memphis BioWorks Foundation’s AgBioWorks initiative and its scores of supporters(www.agbioworks.org) by Battelle Technology Partnership Practice.
Entitled “Regional Strategy for Biobased Products in the Mississippi Delta”, the study presents a roadmap that illuminates this path with incredible detail. It projects that near-term economic development could produce 25,000 jobs in ten years and 50,000 in the next 20, with up to $8 billion annually pumped into the area’s economy! Perhaps most impressive, the study is sponsored by about 60 corporations and educational and economic institutions spread over the entire five-state area – maybe setting a record for “knowing no borders”!
This unity of purpose by leaders in the Delta region is quite understandable when one looks at the area’s geography and demographics. Crop land, pastures and forests cover 31.5 million acres – a full 87.2% of the total 98-county land area which contains only a single urban metroplex – Memphis . A profile in the study also points out that the area’s 1.7-million workforce is not highly educated, has low literacy skills, and exists with poverty levels well above national averages. Moreover, it says, unemployment rates are always among the highest in the U.S. , even in good times.
“The clear regional strategic advantage for the Mississippi Delta region is in biomass,” the study concludes. “Developing a skilled workforce to work in biorefineries and transitional manufacturing is the path to economic development and regional success.” The irony, of course, is that most of the area’s recent economic woes can be traced to the same agricultural underpinnings – when machinery and more efficient technology displaced manual labor in the generations following World War II.
Already rich in biomass resources, the region is beginning its new direction by identifying the various non-food crops can be grown for energy and to make biobased products. The study provides exhaustive lists of these, including the plusses and minuses of each. Another step in the strategy is identifying and modernizing the decentralized bioprocessing facilities available in the region, as well as transitional manufacturing sites in Memphis and in medium-sized centers like Jonesboro , AR , and Greenwood , MS. Memphis already is a major international transportation hub, with heavy capacity to move goods and products by rail, freight, air or river.
Workforce development in renewable energy technologies will be fundamental if the strategy is to succeed, and all five states in the region – Arkansas , Missouri , Kentucky , Tennessee and Mississippi – have signed onto the goal, with classes and degree programs already under way or in the pipeline. This remains a serious hurdle, but the study concludes it is attainable.
“The world’s leading agricultural, biotechnology, chemical and petroleum industries are currently reconfiguring into new partnerships and structures to capitalize on the manufacture of biobased products,” the study concludes.
And in order to do any of that, there must be an available, sustainable biomass. And friends, we’ve got one here that covers the Delta like the dew!