Farming a Fuel Alternative to Corn Ethanol

Rows of corn, beans, wheat and canola used to dominate the landscape at Brad and Kim Black's Monroe County, Tennessee farm.  Four years ago, the family farmers started planting seed from Texas to reestablish a tall grass native to North America.  They planted 56 acres in switchgrass, a dense, woody grass with tough blades.

"It fit in our plan pretty well," explains Brad Black, "and it allowed us to free up our time, especially in the spring, because we don't have to replant every year."  The Blacks' Color Wheel Farm was part of a pilot group of farms to grow switchgrass for biofuel experimentation .  Each fall, they harvest and haul what look like typical large round bales of hay from what has expanded to 291 acres in switchgrass.  Their fields are part of a patchwork of more than 5,000 acres now grown in connection with the University of Tennessee and Department of Energy's programs.

Experimental Biorefinery
Just a few miles down the road, the large bales of switchgrass cellulose are helping scientists tweak the process of creating an alternative to corn-based ethanol.  "We have the largest crop of switchgrass anywhere in the country," boasts Jennifer Burke of Genera Energy.  For the sake of efficiency, all growers are located in a 60 mile radius of the storage and processing facilities.  Genera was created to bridge the gap between public research and private industrial investment.  So far, any biofuel created at the experimental facility in Vonore, Tennessee has been used only for the fleet of university vehicles.  Burke says, "We're hopeful that all of our research and the work that we're currently doing will lead up to a commercial announcement.  That's good for the economy, and for the nation's energy independence, making us less dependent on foreign oil."

Farmer Brad Black
More than 1,000 visitors were reportedly in attendance at the first Biomass Field Day in October.  The field day included everyone from university educators to farming enthusiasts to business leaders.  Previously this year, government vip's, including Tennessee's Governor Bill Haslam, have walked the switchgrass fields.  During Governor Phil Bredesen's administration, $70 million was pledged for biofuels research, with that funding expiring at the end of 2012.

Switchgrass Bales
While hope for future business and energy independence seems to be on the horizon, Black cautions other farmers to consider the bottom line when trying switchgrass.  He and a select few farmers have been receiving contracted payments to grow the crop for fuel experimentation.  "Don't try this unless you've got a contract, because there's not a commercial market yet," says Black, "we're hoping for an announcement in the near future.  It's gonna have to happen in the near future for us, because we've got 175 acres coming out of contract."

Still ahead this week:  challenges in the field and other uses for switchgrass besides biofuel...

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