On marginal land, these grasses may be greener (VIDEO)

Oct 10, 2012

In the parched, rolling hills of western Missouri, you might expect to see a desolate scene after this summer’s drought. But in this field, hip-high native grass sways across the landscape like seaweed in the ocean.

Wayne Vassar is growing these native plants for biofuel.

“They’ve had corn or soy on (this land) in the past,” he said, “and what’s happened was when you have these kinds of slope it erodes pretty rapidly and you lose a lot of your fertility as the top soil goes down the hill.”

Farmland experts call this kind of land “marginal land.” The hills make it difficult for the soil to hold onto the topsoil nutrients. And along the rivers and other flood plains, frequent flooding can deprive plants the oxygen they need to survive. It all adds up to an estimated 116 million acres in the central U.S.

Land like this might only produce a profitable harvest with traditional crops, like corn or soybeans, once or twice every five years. That’s quite a financial risk for farmers. So how can farmers avoid that risk factor and make sure such soils provide a consistent economic return?

“That’s where some of these biomass feedstock crops come in,” said Shibu Jose,  director of agroforestry at the University of Missouri. Jose says native grasses – or biomass –like the grasses Vassar is growing, have evolved naturally to survive in flood and drought conditions. For the growers, the plants are cheap and require low maintenance – watering maybe once a season.

The problem is the market for the native grasses – primarily for use in biofuel – isn’t nearly as strong as it is for the occasional productive harvest of corn or soybeans.

Native Grass Grown On Marginal Land from KBIA FM on Vimeo.

Trying to kick-start this market model is the federal Biomass Crop Assistance Program, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidizes land owners who are willing to grow biomass for biofuel.  Vassar is a part of the program, which was initiated by the 2008 Farm Bill. 

Vassar said that Show Me Energy Cooperative,  a bio-refinery just down the road, buys his biomass as well as from a few hundred other growers. The co-op then converts it into pellets, which are then sold to coal plants, for burning in stoves and even for cattle feed.

“Right now, it’s very lucrative – $100 a ton,” he said. “It was half that. And if (farmers) have really good stands of biomass they can produce three or four tons per acre. So that’s a pretty nice, little cash return per acre.”

Ideally, the goal is to convert the biomass to liquid biofuel, like ethanol, for interested industries such as commercial airlines and the military. But Jose said the refineries that can actually do that are sparsely scattered around the U.S., which makes it too expensive for many would-be growers to transport their harvest.

“Transportation is a major bottle neck when we talk about a bio-based economy,” he said. “The reason being you are trying to transport a low energy feedstock. You cannot transport that very far. If you do that, the economics behind it will disappear in a hurry.”

In the meantime, Jose said that even using a fraction of the marginal land available could help close the gap on a federal mandate for 21 billion gallons of non-corn starch biofuel in the nation’s fuel supply by 2022.

“We estimate that based on the current level of productivity, if you convert 10 percent of the marginal land along the Mississippi River, we can produce up to 6-8 billion gallons of advanced biofuels from this corridor alone,” Jose said. “And that would be about a third of the advanced biofuel target that we have as a country.”

Vassar said interest in growing biomass is building among land owners – especially in light of the drought. Indeed, the USDA’s biomass program has a waiting list of farmers ready to jump on board.

This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.