Recently, a group of scientists, academics, government officials and agriculture experts gathered at the Pommery Vineyard in the heart of the French Champagne region. But the subject wasn’t the making of the world’s most famous sparkling wines. Instead, the gathering was designed to discuss, critique and highlight the benefits of a potential bio-refinery and to examine best practices in establishing such an operation in the middle of a valuable agricultural region.
Of course a meeting of this type would normally go unnoticed and be of little interest to those of us in the Mid-South, except for one thing. Of the 18 speakers and panelists, one name stood out from the rest as obviously not French. That was Bill Stubblefield, director of the AgBioworks Regional Initiative from the Memphis Bioworks Foundation. As the lone expert from outside of France, Bill had been invited to outline and overview what is taking place in the heart of the Mid-South in terms of alternative crops, bio-cellulosic use, partnerships, commercialization, farmer networks, establishing and operating a bio-refinery, and the development of biobased products from plant materials to replace fossil fuels. In other words, of all the programs and initiatives around the globe dedicated to AgBio, our work here at Memphis Bioworks and with our partners in the region was selected as the definitive best practice to benchmark by those leading the efforts in France.
So often, Memphians take for granted what is happening in our own backyard. This is an excellent example of our initiatives beginning to capture international attention. For the group in France, which first was introduced to Memphis’ bioscience leadership through Memphis In May activities, the similarities to what is happening here and what could happen there were clear. The Champagne region of France is historically highly agrarian, just like the Mid-South. In their case the crops are grapes along with barley, peas, sugar beets, white cabbage and onions, while our traditional crops have been cotton, food crops and forestry. But, the issues they are facing are the same – dealing with crop waste, proper land utilization, supply chains and most recently the establishment new crops and processes to feed a burgeoning biofuels and biobased products industry.
Bill shared it all with the audience and participants in France, giving them a road map for potential opportunities and pitfalls – political and practical, scientific lessons learned to date in new crops, funding, and strategies for bringing together farmers and potential industrial assets.
Make no mistake, what is happening in Memphis and with our AgBio partners in West Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, is far from a finished product. But, our work-in-progress is further along than in most parts of the world, and our vision is second to none in terms of long-term potential impact. Those in Champagne-Ardenne and its neighboring Lorraine, Franche-Comte, Bourgogne and Ile-de-France can learn a lot from us.
So, next time you pass by Agricenter International and see a new crop growing, or watch a farmer in the fields, or when you hear someone mention the sweet sorghum processing facility at the Agricenter, consider that what is happening isn’t just about us in Memphis, it is about potential for around the world. That’s what the leaders at Pommery Vineyard did. I’m certain they tasted a little champagne as well.