Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 13, 2009

Farmers embrace switchgrass

By MIKE JAMES / The Independent

A farmer who has watched Mother Nature throw her worst at his crops � rain-sodden springs, drought-withered summers, Biblical hordes of voracious, marauding birds � does not lightly embrace every new agricultural phenomenon.

Glowing theories don�t hold a lot of weight to those who have too often seen the Next Big Thing in cash crops yield a bumper harvest of red ink.

That is why it is remarkable to hear the enthusiasm in the voices of Glen Young and Danny Blevins. Both are farmers in Boyd County and both are in the second year of a pilot project to grow switchgrass for use as fuel in electric power plants.

It�s cautious optimism, to be sure, but Blevins and Young think the grass, a native prairie species that is being re-introduced to Northeast Kentucky, can be a moneymaker for them.

That�s a considerable hurdle for proponents of the grass, touted both as an alternative fuel to coal and as a mechanism for alleviating global warming by taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

�That�s the age-old question for a farmer ... Is it practical? Can you make a profit? I think you can,� said Blevins, a retired teacher, environmentalist and conservationist who grows the grass on his family farm in Boyd County.

The final answer will hinge on the market value, which has not yet stabilized, said Young, who also farms in Boyd County. He does not believe switchgrass is a replacement for traditional cash crops but more a supplement. �Overall there can be a place in a farmer�s plan,� he said.

Reviving native grass

Switchgrass was among the dominant grasses in the prairies that once covered the central plains and it still can be found in some pastures and along roadsides.

A perennial, switchgrass grows to around six feet and can be harvested once or more per year for 10 years. It thrives on marginal land and can endure greater extremes of temperature and drought than some traditional crops.

In addition, it develops deep, complex root systems that do two things: hold the soil in place, hence fighting erosion, and pull massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil. The ability to sequester carbon makes it a potential tool for alleviating global warming.

Test plots

Young, Blevins and David Horn, another area farmer, are among 20 who are growing five-acre plots of the grass under a test project of the University of Kentucky. Their mission is to show growers how to plant, maintain, harvest and market the grass.

The farmers receive a subsidy to grow the grass, which UK takes to the East Kentucky Power Cooperative�s Spurlock Station coal-burning power plant near Maysville. The plant mixes the grass with coal to test its value as a fuel.

The test plots were started in 2007 so the cuttings this year represent the first significant harvest, said Ray Smith, an assistant professor and forage specialist in the UK College of Agriculture.

The yields were good enough to make believers out of the farmers, he said. �We�ve been pleased with the producers� interest and involvement in the project,� Smith said. �We feel all the more confident that the farmers could increase their acreage if they wanted to.� In fact, local county agents have been fielding calls from other farmers interested in the grass, he said.

No special equipment

If switchgrass is to be commercially viable, farmers have to be able to keep their costs down. Fortunately, Young said, he didn�t need any special equipment to grow or harvest it. He planted with the same no-till drill he uses for grain, soybeans and other grasses and the same sprayers and harvesters he already has in his barn.

It turns out that the grass grows pretty well, even on the marginal land where some of the farmers planted it. Blevins, in particular, was encouraged after his stand survived � and thrived ��last year�s dryness and excessive rain this year. His stand was about six feet high and virtually weed-free for his first cutting this year. �It withstood all this stuff ... I�m pretty excited about the whole thing,� he said.

Marginal land

Farmers are intrigued with the ability of switchgrass to grow on marginal land, like hillsides and former strip-mine land. That, of course, describes much of eastern Kentucky.

�There�s a lot of marginal land around here,� Young said. �I don�t think it will replace much prime agricultural land.�

That�s important, Blevins said, because farmers won�t be giving up their traditional crops. �(Switchgrass) has a niche, it has a place,� he said.

That niche is broad, as is evident from a glance at a map of the region. �There�s a lot of room in Northeast Kentucky. We�d have to plant millions of acres (to consume it all), Smith said.

Carbon storage

All of the above is good news to scientists and environmentalists searching for ways to lessen the impact of human-produced carbon dioxide in Earth�s atmosphere.

Like all plants, switchgrass uses carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to grow. Its deep root system takes the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stores it on a long-term basis.

The roots tie up more carbon dioxide every year as they grow and spread, Smith said. Researchers don�t yet have definitive numbers on how much, but Smith is certain that more is stored than is released when the grass is burned as a fuel.

A side benefit is that as the root system develops, older portions of it die off and eventually are incorporated in the soil, making it richer, he said. That is a promising development for areas with depleted soil, such as former strip mines.

Marketing the grass

The jury is still out on whether farmers can make a profit on the grass. The UK program subsidizes the test stands. There is a federal program, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, that will match a farmer�s selling price up to $45 per ton, Smith said.

In the long run, however, to market switchgrass as a biofuel, farmers will have to be able to price it competitively with coal.

Also, coal burners, such as power plants, will require the grass in a format they can transport to their plants and burn along with coal. That is where companies like Midwestern Biofuels come in.

Midwestern, a new company slated to go into full production next year, processes the grass into large pellets that power plants can use.

Smith figures it will take five to 10 years to fully develop the production and processing potential of the grass.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-2652.