The ReEnergy biomass plant at Ashland's Machias River Industrial Park seen in February 2018. Credit: Anrhony Brino

ASHLAND, Maine — As the growing season nears, northern Maine farmers who have depended on wood ash as an affordable alternative to lime are now in a lurch with the closure of Aroostook County’s two biomass plants.

The closure of both ReEnergy plants in Ashland and Fort Fairfield within a year came as a disappointment to those in the forestry and agriculture sectors, said Shannon Giles of Maine Environmental, which supplied wood ash from the biomass plants to farms in Aroostook County.

Maine Environmental, based in Hermon and started by the Giles family in the 1980s, had been delivering 30,000 tons of ReEnergy’s wood ash every year to more than 60 farms in central Aroostook County.

“It was a great fit for Aroostook County,” Giles said. “For the facilities, it was a great marriage because it helped them fit with the recycling theme. It started with the woods and the byproduct ended up back in the ground.”

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According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, approximately 70,000 tons of wood ash are spread on farmland every year in Maine, providing a main nutrient of calcium, which raises the pH of the soil, as well as a range of micronutrients such as copper, boron, sulfur and zinc.

Giles said the cost of wood ash in Aroostook County has generally been less than half the cost of commercial lime. Depending on the source, amount and type of nutrients, commercial lime costs can start at around $35 per ton, Giles said. Lime is often applied at rates of one or more tons per acre.

Giles said that a range of farms purchased wood ash. Some were large acreage potato and grain farms, while others were hay farmers and Amish dairy farms. The wood ash was also approved for organic production.

Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said that potato growers are less likely to be affected by the lack of wood ash, as potatoes rely on more acidic soils with lower pH values. More likely to be impacted, he said, are Aroostook County farms that focus on marketing top-quality hay and livestock forage.

Giles said that other Maine woods products mills produce wood ash that’s used in agriculture, but ReEnergy’s plants produced a sizable amount of the material in the heart of Aroostook County’s agricultural region, making transport to area farms affordable.

Giles’ grandfather was the family’s pioneer in the lime business, developing a lime pit and business out of Limestone that later evolved into the business selling wood ash in the 1980s.

“We had an established relationship selling lime,” Giles said. “When the biomass plants came into existence, it was a natural fit to provide a cheaper alternative to fertilizing the ground.”

Giles said he is not sure what his company will do, or what options his farmer customers will take.

“It’s a big economic hit. There was a waiting list to get this wood ash.”

As Don Tardie, chairman of the Ashland Area Economic Development Committee, said, the biomass plants’ closures will have an inter-connected impact around Aroostook County, affecting plant workers, loggers, truckers and farmers.

“It basically upsets the whole integration we had in our working forests for northern Maine,” Tardie said.

This story was originally published in The County.