Switchgrass – a future cash crop?

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Thanks to new research and a growing demand for biofuels, farmers may soon be able to use modified land to grow a new cash crop, switchgrass.

Right now, a project led by Brian K. Richards, a Cornell researcher in biological and environmental engineering, is examining the long-term sustainability impacts of growing perennial grasses on marginal lands. One challenge that work is taking head-on: how to control one byproduct of growing switchgrass on marginal land – nitrous oxide, an ozone depleting gas.

The promise of switchgrass is that it grows well on marginal soils that are too poor to support most conventional agricultural crops. It poses little erosion risk and offers a high net energy return.

But in many cases those soils are regarded as marginal because they are wetter than prime agricultural soils, says Richards. Wet soils are more prone to a process called denitrification, in which nitrate from fertilizer is converted back to gaseous forms – primarily inert nitrogen, which comprises the bulk of our atmosphere. However, a small percentage ends up as nitrous oxide, which has been steadily increasing in the atmosphere and is considered a primary threat to the ozone layer.

For the energy industry, researchers need to discover how to minimize potential nitrous oxide emissions as the amount of land devoted to bioenergy production increases.

On Cornell’s crop research fields, Richards and his team are using soil chambers to test for emissions of nitrous oxide and other trace gases emanating from the soil. Throughout the growing season, they have tested acres of switchgrass and expect their first results by later this year. They are also measuring crop yields and tracking beneficial changes in soil carbon storage and overall soil health.

Under the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the United States must increase the volume of renewable fuel – chiefly ethanol – to be blended into transportation fuel to 36 billion gallons by 2022, up from 9 billion gallons in 2008, of which 21 billion gallons will be non-corn-derived ethanol.

Richards’ research is funded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Bioenergy program.


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Rich Wahl    
Kansas  |  October, 14, 2013 at 06:13 PM

Don't hold your breath on this one. We started gearing up to handle grass back in 2006/07. Were set to expand acres with CRP program FSA came out with, only to be shot down by a judge and the environmentalists out West. Sooner or later the politics will wreck the Energy Independence Act of 2007 and any farmer invested into the project will get burned. We researched other nitrogen fixing alternatives only to find no interest on the part of producers since Monsanto and company didn't come up with it and the taxpayer wouldn't pay for it. In addition, the American mind set is still trainloads of ethanol at a time and biofuel sources like switchgrass is expensive to transport much distance. Is it realistic to expect to compete with what we are now told are massive natural gas reserves in this country?

George Greer    
Seattle, WA  |  October, 15, 2013 at 03:21 AM

I am from a farm in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia although I am in Washington state right now. I understand a lot of this but not on the practical level of the farmers who are reading this...we raised cattle. Fracking has released radon(radioactive) into some water sources in Pennsylvania and there has also been a great slowdown in the purchase of land for franking as well as drop in price for the land. I think that switchgrass could be viable as an energy source and is a natural defense against soul erosion in time of drought. It might help preserve the Ogalala Aquifer as well. Being from the Appalachians we get tons of rain so the nutrients in the soil go to the rivers and valleys leaving us clay soil that grows rocks. You have to worry about the soul and nutrients being blown away. As for big business, don't expect them to support you. My family once had(some very distant relatives still do) have a root and herb business that was decimated by synthetic medicines in the 50's and 60's. Monsanto has little interest in helping you because you can't patent nature. You may hate the idea of growing hemp or cannibas, but it was legal until prohibition was lifted in 1933 and hemp production was encouraged for WWII, after criminalization. Farming is hard. It is a sacrifice of money for a sacred bond with the land, to feel and know the soil. Big corporate bean counters care about money alone. Our elected officials can agree with Monsanto on GM food(don't know what the O is), but they can't explain to me why I see 10 year old girls who look like Dolly Parton either. This is your land. You have made mistakes but don't think their golden parachute will give you a soft landing. Do what is right in your heart.


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