Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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December 13, 2009

Farmers embrace switchgrass


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.

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