As Edward Boza dirties his hands over multiple rows of greenhouse test pots, his new bosses, brothers Jeff, Troy and Jon Hornbeck, are in their office making sure their company's overall plan is on track.
A short jog up the road at DeWitt, Ark., the state's first biofuel facility — now a nearly-complete office building, a few freshly assembled grain bins, oil tanks, and a large building that will house the crushing and conversion equipment — is taking shape.
Boza and the fuel plant have more in common than just a financial backer. The University of Arkansas-trained plant pathologist and breeder is expanding the Hornbeck Seed's lab to make it capable of genetic work to enhance the breeding program. If all goes according to the aforementioned plan, not only will farmers see better varieties quicker, but there will also be high-oil soybean varieties tailor-made for the fuel operation.
“When we set up the marker assistance selection program, it will greatly enhance the molecular breeding program of the company,” says Boza, a Nicaraguan who most recently worked with UA rice breeder Karen Moldenhauer. “This is a winner for the company and growers.”
Speed is paramount for seed companies. “When we first started in 1995, we didn't have winter nurseries in Argentina and Costa Rica and Puerto Rico,” says Troy. “So it took seven years to get a variety out, a long time. Nowadays, the market demands you get one out as quickly as possible: new germ plasm, higher yield, disease traits, whatever. Right now, the turnaround is about four years.”
With the program Boza is setting up, “we can select lines with the exact germ plasm or disease traits we're looking for. So from the time we make a cross in the field until we have some seed to go forward with will be about two years.”
Currently, the Hornbecks take seed to Costa Rica or Puerto Rico and advance it four or five generations in one winter.
“This new breeding program and lab is a big investment, but saves a lot of time. It speeds up our breeding program and allows us to get more, hopefully improved, germ plasm.
“Every year we work with and find new things. Whether it's something from other countries or the Midwest, every time you make a cross there's a chance you'll find some new, high-yielding piece of the puzzle.”
And by working with genetic markers to identify traits, common problems associated with field selection can be circumvented.
“By using these molecular techniques, we'll be overriding any environmental effect for the lines if they were in the field,” says Boza. Unlike the weather and in-field environments, “the technology is consistent.”
The Hornbecks believe the lab and breeding program expansion were necessary “to keep up with larger seed companies,” says Jon. “There are not many small, independent breeding companies doing this. Unlike larger companies, we won't have (as many) chemists on board, but we will do the DNA testing and select traits. That puts us in a unique situation — more so than almost any other regional company in the South. It helps us compete on a more economical level.”
In the current farming environment, how does Hornbeck Seed deal with shifts in maturity group popularity?
“That is a difficult ball to catch,” admits Troy. “It isn't an exact science. Two years ago, Group 3s and early 4s were hot. Everyone wanted them — Mississippi was 80 percent planted by mid-April.”
So what happened this year? “Corn, milo, corn, corn, corn. Plus, we've got more wheat planted. That means all our soybean acres will be backed up to later planting. Farmers don't want to plant soybeans with corn because then harvest time would be a crunch.”
If wheat prices remain strong, Troy expects double-cropped soybeans to be popular for a few years.
“And as long as corn is $3.50, it's here to stay in big acreage. That means soybeans will either be pushed to a bit later planting date or double-cropped.”
In early April, Jon visited with a family friend from south Arkansas. “He said a buddy of his had been planting all cotton, forever. Then, this year, he planted not a single cotton seed and went all corn — 8,000 acres.
“And he did this without having a single corn header or truck. So, at some point, he'll have to go buy that equipment. It'll be awfully hard to haul that corn in a cotton wagon.
“There are some profound changes being made in the Mid-South.”
And there's that chase for a biofuel bean. “That's a large part of the purpose for bringing (Boza) in,” says Jon. “We want to develop a high-oil soybean — it could be a conventional, a Roundup Ready, a Liberty, whatever.”
A soybean bred for higher protein (for the meal market) is another target. “One interesting thing is it appears that a bean can't be both high-oil and high-protein. You have to choose one or the other.”
If Boza develops a fuel-bean, “we'll be able to (contract) it with farmers around here,” says Troy. “They can grow the seed and then bring it to the biodiesel facility. That way, they'll make more money because they're helping make the fuel plant's output higher. That situation would be full-circle, bringing in the seed company, the research, and the biodiesel facility all while helping our neighbors make more money.”
As for the Arkansas Soy Energy Group facility, Jon says, “We're probably 80 percent along as far as major construction.”
By mid-April, shipping containers should arrive with the equipment for the crushing facility, the extruders, and the presses. “We're praying all the stuff is here on time. We're expecting seven or eight containers from Argentina, and a couple from Brazil and Italy. Brazil and Argentina are much further along with biofuels than we are.”
Around 15 engineers are being brought up from South America to assemble the equipment in DeWitt. Once the crushing equipment is set up, it will be time to focus on phase two of the biofuel plant — the reaction phase when B-100 (100 percent biodiesel) is produced.
“We've already begun some early work on phase two, but that'll begin in earnest later this summer. There will be a four or five month lag between the two.”
After considering several bills related to biofuels, the Arkansas legislature recently adjourned. Are the Hornbecks pleased with what came out of the session? “One bill, HB1379, has some incentives for feedstock producers, biofuel facilities, and infrastructure,” says Troy. “It didn't get a tremendous amount of opposition.”
The bill passed — although not funded to the extent many proponents of biofuel were hoping for. “I believe it ended up at $11 million while $26 million was sought, and that's fine,” says Jon.
One of the problems facing the state's biofuel potential is a lack of crushing capacity. “Riceland makes cooking oil out of most of (what it crushes),” says Troy. “And Gary Canada in England, Ark., crushes and produces about 800,000 gallons of oil annually. And that's it.
“In the state of Arkansas — with 4 million acres of soybeans — there are two crushing facilities. That's amazing. How are we supposed to build our biodiesel industry and have only two crushers?”
There must be incentives to build crushing facilities. Hopefully, says Jon, the new legislation “is a start towards that. It's good to have the legislature behind this. Now, it's up to the biofuel industry to work together to take advantage of this opportunity.”
To see the first part of Delta Farm Press' report on the Hornbeck biofuel plant, see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/061030-alternative-fuels/index.html. For more on biodiesel, visit www.biodiesel.org.