Education key to switchgrass market growth

2014-07-09T05:00:00Z Education key to switchgrass market growthCHRIS LUSVARDI H&R Staff Writer
July 09, 2014 5:00 am  • 

DECATUR — Most farmers still aren't totally convinced that switching to growing warm season grasses is a viable alternative to traditional crops in their fields.

An Agricultural Watershed Institute workshop Tuesday at Richland Community College explored topics related to growing warm season grasses for forage and bioenergy.

Champaign County farmer Eric Rund has been growing miscanthus for seven years but hasn't seen as much of a market for it develop as he would like.

“It doesn't make much sense to grow it,” Rund said. “If we're going to convince people to use grasses for fuel, it's got to be reliable, low maintenance and affordable.”

Decatur farmer David Brix said education is crucial in convincing customers to buy switchgrasses instead of long-used alfala for hay.

“I'm not saying the market won't be there, but it's going to take a lot of education first,” Brix said. “It's going to be a challenge.”

The Agricultural Watershed Institute is working with several groups interested in developing the warm season grass market. They see the potential environmental benefits to growing the grasses.

“We've become very interested in the idea of perennial crops,” said Steve John, the institute's executive director. “We'd like to get more grassland onto the landscape dominated by corn and soybeans.”

The Agricultural Watershed Institute is working with a new organization, the Midwest Conservation Biomass Alliance. The group set an ambitious goal of adding 30 million new acres of native grassland in 30 years, said Carol Williams, a research scientist in the agronomy department at the University of Wisconsin.

Part of the market inertia is farmers are reluctant to grow grasses without markets, Williams said. Biomass can have multiple benefits for people, land, water and wildlife, she said.

“We want to improve systems without compromising productivity,” Williams said.

The energy center at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston currently runs on wood chips, said Tom Canam, an assistant biology professor. The amount of wood chips needed is high at 100 tons per day in the winter, he said.

“We're interested in looking at alternative feedstocks,” Canam said. “We need a lot of biomass.”

Rund is encouraged to see more interest in developing uses for alternative energy sources.

“I finally see an opportunity for a market,” Rund said. “It holds a lot of promise.”

The University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Biomass Working Group co-sponsored the workshop.

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