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.
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.