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US Farmers Consider European Grass as New Crop - 2003-02-19

Hoping to boost their sagging farm incomes, growers in the midwestern American state of Illinois are seeking a new source of profits - in the energy market. They're helping to generate power in rural areas by producing a fuel called biomass. Biomass can include a variety of crops grown to be burned at power plants that otherwise would burn coal. But, the Illinois growers are especially interested in one biomass crop that researchers say is ideally suited to local conditions.

Miscanthus is a crop that Midwestern American farmers don't know very well. It is actually native to the tiny European principality of Monaco. But John Clifton-Brown, an agricultural researcher from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, believes miscanthus, with its four-meter tall stalks topped with fluffy, seedless flowers, is a crop Illinois farmers ought to be excited about.

Mr. Clifton-Brown has been growing the perennial grass in Ireland for the past 12 years, and he says it's a natural fit for the fertile, rain-fed fields of Illinois. "You seem to have, in Illinois, superb soil. You seem to have very low corn prices. You have rainfall. And these factors combined look like a golden opportunity for the development of renewable energy from biomass crops like miscanthus," said Mr. Clifton-Brown.

Miscanthus can be grown in the same ground that's now planted with corn and soybeans. But the similarities would seem to stop there. Where most midwest farmers are used to growing crops that produce food, miscanthus is grown specifically to beharvested, bailed and burned, usually in a mixture with coal in coal-fired power plants. But John Caveney, who has grown miscanthus on his land, stops short of calling this a new way of farming. "Well in a way it is, in a way it isn't," he said. "What all farmers do, when you get right down to it, is advance the value of sunlight energy. That's what you do, whether you grow tomatoes, whether you grow flowers, whether you grow grass [or] whether you grow corn."

In the case of growing miscanthus, the process is much different than that of most midwest cash crops. Because the tall grass does not produce seeds, the multi-row planters sitting in most farmers' equipment sheds are useless. A producer needs to dig holes and plant sprigs of miscanthus, one at a time. The perennial crop will grow back, year after year, for up to 30 years. But a farmer can't harvest it for burning until the second or third year that it's been in the ground.

Even with all these complications, researcher Steve Long, with the University of Illinois-champaign,says a farmer who's willing to make an investment in miscanthus could reap great rewards in the long-run.

"You do need labor to put this into the ground," said Mr. Long, "but then after that, this is considerably less labor than corn or soybeans, and on current figures, it is more profitable."

Those figures are more theory than reality at this point. In Illinois, one of the state's major power companies, Dynegy, is the only utility that currently buys miscanthus. And even Dynegy won't be ready to harvest biomass crops on a large scale for another five years. But the energy company projects it could eventually pay $40 per ton of dried, harvested miscanthus. The reason? While it doesn't burn as efficiently as coal, miscanthus emits far fewer pollutants, and actually cleans the air while it's growing.

As energy companies are forced to follow more and more stringent environmental regulations, Dynegy's Chris Williams says an eco-friendly fuel like miscanthus becomes more appealing. "It's getting closer and closer to the cost of coal generation," he explained. "And you look at that with the environmental benefits of the biomass, it really makes sense to do the research now to get it into production as soon as we can."

Dynegy is already looking for farmers to grow miscanthus within an 80 kilometer radius of its power plant in Havanna, Illinois. How many producers the company locates remains to be seen, and researchers concede that only time will tell how this plant will do, with the oldest plot in Illinois having been planted only 14 years ago.

That doesn't faze Emily Heaton, who looks after that plot as a University of Illinois graduate student. Ms. Heaton said much of her interest in miscanthus is based on what she calls "tree-hugger stuff," but she sees much more in this giant grass.

"I've seen so many farms ... you know ... just kids I grew up with that their parents used to farm and they don't farm anymore and that Illinois agriculture just doesn't seem to be able to support Illinois agriculture producers. And I hate that. I'd love to be able to have a product that farmers could grow and feel proud of and not feel like it's subsidized and that is actually benefiting the environment and people actually want. Something to make a profit," she said.

In Ms. Heaton's mind, miscanthus is that product. Others think the answer lies with biomass crops like switchgrass. Some are even growing fields of young aspen and willow trees to be burned for power. Each crop has a slightly different growing season, but all serve the same purpose. Like miscanthus, they signal a future where the energy we mine today could eventually be mowed.