AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University has been awarded a $200,000 grant to develop perennial cash crops for southern Iowa.

The grant was awarded by the Sun Grant Initiative to fund biomass crop production research. The grant forms a partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service. The funds will be used for research at Iowa State, Southwestern Community College and on-farm research.

"Perennial warm-season grasses may be a much more appropriate crop for farmers in the southern part of the state," said Emily Heaton, an Iowa State University agronomy professor. "Because the soils are more erodible and less productive for corn, perennials have the potential to be an economical alternative."

Iowa State research will focus on crop selection and improvement. Faculty and students at Southwestern Community College will identify methods to grow and use biomass crops as an energy source.

Heaton says farmers in northern Missouri and southern Iowa are already producing biomass from grasses for a Missouri cooperative. The harvested biomass is processed into clean-burning pellets that are mixed with coal for electric companies. Biomass production is a response to Missouri's carbon mandates, which limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Mark DePoy, Natural Resource and Conservation Service regional coordinator for the Southern Iowa Research Conservation and Development district, thinks the cooperative model would be a good fit for southern Iowa.

"This could be a business that is profitable in southern Iowa," said DePoy. "This part of the state is similar in natural resources and soils to northern Missouri. Acreage dedicated to grass crops would produce cleaner water, improve soil quality and provide ample habitat for wildlife while creating good paying jobs."

The federal government also offers incentives through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. The program matches each dollar up to $45 a ton that farmers spend to deliver biomass crops.

"The goal of our grant project is to create viable systems that protect the land and create a profitable crop for farmers," said Heaton. "If we aren't helping the farmers make money and protect the soil, we aren't doing our job."

SOURCE: Iowa State University.