Farm bill could change forage landscape if Congress delivers

If you are wondering when cellulosic-based ethanol will get the attention needed to compete with corn-based ethanol, the 2007 farm bill may hold the answer. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., was recently quoted as saying numerous ideas are being "thrown around the table" that could add more incentives to the farm bill's energy and conservation sections.

Cellulosic ethanol is derived from a variety of sources including "energy crops" like the highly touted switchgrass, from non-food plant materials or feedstocks such as straw, or from sawdust and paper pulp. It requires a more complex refining process, but it contains more net energy and results in lower greenhouse emissions than corn-based ethanol.

Given our dysfunctional Congress, however, we're skeptical when politicians promise to effect real change. We remember the 1973 Middle East oil boycott and President Richard Nixon's call for energy independence. Then, liquefying the country's vast coal reserves was the path to energy independence. Thirty-four years later, we are hearing the same promises with a different twist.

There are at least two bills in the U.S. Senate that are being offered in support of the farm bill's energy component. Both have been drafted by Midwest senators. The Farm to Fuel Investment Act is described as a program to help growers make the transition to "dedicated energy crops." It also ups the ante for farmers who grow native, perennial energy crops due to their conservation benefits.

Another proposal, the Biofuels Innovation Program Act is designed to promote bio-refinery construction and give farmers incentives to grow energy-dedicated crops.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is taking a close look at native grasses as "the biofuel that could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil….and strengthen America's farm economy." The DOE's development program includes scientists ranging from economists and energy analysts to plant physiologists and geneticists stationed around the country.

It seems that fast-growing switchgrass, a native prairie grass, is the energy crop of choice. For example, test plots at Auburn University have produced up to 15 tons of dry biomass per acre, and five-year yield averages of 11.5 tons, enough to make 1,150 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. However, University of Illinois researchers have had impressive yield results with Miscanthus, which is used as an ornamental plant in the U.S. A perennial grass native to subtropical and tropical regions of Africa and southern Asia, Miscanthus is capable of producing up to 30 tons of dry weight annually.

Locally, elephant grass has been offered up as another non-native perennial grass that fits the profile for a cellulosic-based energy crop. It has shown to be adaptable to California where researchers at California State University, Fresno, and other locations have touted its feed value and other attributes.

The bottom line is that corn-based ethanol cannot carry the load. According to one estimate we have seen, meeting the proposed goal of 35 billion gallons of ethanol annually would require planting corn on an area the combined size of Iowa and Kansas. If the farm bill gives a significant boost to cellulosic-based ethanol, it will be interesting to see how the California landscape changes.

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