Would farmers plant energy crops?
In their quest to make cellulosic biofuel a viable energy option, many researchers are looking to marginal lands - those unsuitable for growing food - as potential real estate for bioenergy crops. However, few people have asked: how do farmers feel about using their marginal lands for fuel production?
Brad Barham, a UW-Madison professor of agricultural and applied economics and a researcher with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, took the direct approach. He surveyed Wisconsin farmers.
After analyzing responses from a 2011 questionnaire sent to 300 farmers in southwestern Wisconsin, Barham and his team found that fewer than 30 percent were willing to grow non-edible cellulosic biofuel feedstocks - such as perennial grasses and short-rotation trees - on their marginal lands for a range of prices. The researchers presented the findings at the 2013 meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) in Washington, D.C. in August.
"Previous work in the area of marginal lands for bioenergy has been based primarily on the landscape's suitability, without much research on its economic viability," says Barham. "How much farmers are willing to change their land-use behavior is what's in play."
Despite the minority of positive responses, the researchers found that there were "hotspots" of farmers who showed favorable attitudes toward the use of marginal land for bioenergy. These hotspots might be a window of opportunity for bioenergy researchers, since they indicate areas where feedstocks could be grown more continuously.
"If we want concentrated bioenergy production, that means looking for hotspots where people have favorable attitudes toward crops that can improve the environmental effects associated with energy decisions," says Barham.
Randy Jackson of the UW-Madison Department of Agronomy is also interested in bioenergy hotspots. Jackson, who co-leads GLBRC's sustainability research area, says that just because lands are too wet, too rocky or too eroded to farm traditionally doesn't mean they aren't valuable.
"'Marginal' is a relative term," says Jackson. "When Brad goes out and surveys farmers, he's looking at more than the biophysical attributes of the soil. He's also trying to get at the social definition of marginal land - the fact that this land is where the owners like to hunt, for example."
The goal of GLBRC researchers like Barham and Jackson is to integrate the environmental impacts of different cropping systems with economic and social drivers.