Local algae farmers impacted by farm bill

Published: Jan. 13, 2019 at 5:29 PM CST
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The farm bill signed into law by President Trump will impact agriculture in the Permian Basin, notably in algae production.

The 800-page law passed on December 24th sets the country’s farm policy through 2023.

Qualitas 60-acre algae farm is located in the town of Imperial in Pecos County, 30 miles outside of Fort Stockton. The farm has been testing and producing algae since 2013, according to the farm’s Director of Algae Production, Bart Reid.

“Now the Farm Bill has moved along algae to be a legit and recognized form of agriculture and put right in the wheelhouse of the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture],” he said,

Reid used to raise shrimp on the farm, but now grows Nannochloropsis algae, primarily for its Omega-3. Reid said West Texas has the perfect storm of natural and man-made amenities for farming algae.

“West Texas is actually perfect for this, in that we have we’re desert semi-arid climate here 300 or so days of sunlight every year and inexpensive land. Thanks to the oilfield, we have the infrastructure, the electrical grid system, good roads, natural gas and then we have lots of brackish water in this part of West Texas. Lots of salty water, which is perfect. And the land would be useful for nothing else,” he said.

The algae expert said West Texas sunshine, climate and abundance of salty water allows the plant to flourish. And thanks to the farm bill, Qualitas’ business can too.

The farm produces 50 dried tons of Omega-3 a year, just a small fraction of its production capability, according to Reid.

“If a guy takes his life savings and starts a farm. He has insurance in most agriculture to protect his investment if there’s a hail or terrible early freeze, if there’s some natural disaster. We never had access to anything like that, now we can develop a program,” he said.

The Farm Bill paves the way for Federal Crop Insurance for algae farmers. It also opens pipes to research, creating a USDA algae research program to help with production.

“Texas A&M has a giant experimental farm system that they can use for all kinds of crops that can be used now for algae. Then they can do the work that we, as a private company, can’t afford. Then the results of that we can use to improve our business directly to improve our crop,” he said.

West Texas farmers can get a helping hand from a Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which allows farmers to receive financial and other help.

“Your extension agent will have access to research and help an algae farm just like he goes to help an algae farm,” he said.

And through the farm bill, algae farms can be started through a Biorefinery Loan Guarantee program.

“We basically get to play in the same stadium as all the other agriculture,” he said.

And Reid said the future for algae farmers is bright.

“I think in five to 10 years, your life will have algae in it, one way or another. Either through the clothes you’re wearing, the food you eat,” he said.

Algae farmers will see other benefits from the Farm Bill in the future. The Algae Biomass Organization posting the following major benefits on its website.

• Crop Insurance– Algae are explicitly added under the definition of “agricultural commodity” for the purposes of federal crop insurance programs, paving the way for federal crop insurance for algae production

• Algae Agriculture Research Program– Establishes a new USDA Algae Agriculture Research Program to address challenges in farm-scale algae. production and support development of algae-based agriculture solutions

• Biomass Crop Assistance Program– Provides for the first time full eligibility to algae under the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. BCAP provides financial support to farmers for establishment, production and delivery of new biomass crops.

• Biobased Markets Program (BioPreferred)– Directs USDA to establish methodology providing full credit for biobased content for products from biologically recycled carbon. Current USDA methodology excludes biobased products from recycled carbon.

• Biorefinery Assistance (9003 Loan Guarantee) Program – Expands the section 9003 loan guarantee program to allow algae-based and other biorefinery projects for the manufacture of renewable chemicals and biobased products to qualify regardless of whether biofuels will be produced.

• Carbon Capture and Use – Adds several provisions expanding CCU research, education and outreach at the Department of Agriculture.

Qualitas has headquarters in Houston, and another farm in Columbus, New Mexico. The company has an extraction facility in Leon, Mexico. Qualitas currently employs around 11 people at its Imperial farm.