UT expands switchgrass incentive program

By Lisa Gibson
Posted June 23, 2009, at 3:52 p.m. CST

Thirty-eight eastern Tennessee farmers, up 26 from last year, will plant a total of 1,901 acres of switchgrass this year, the second season of the University of Tennessee's switchgrass farmer incentive program.

The switchgrass will be used to produce cellulosic ethanol at the state's first demonstration-scale biorefinery in Vonore in Monroe County, expected to be operational late this year. UT partnered with DuPont-Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC for the pilot plant.

Twelve of the 38 farmers participated last year and have added extra acreage this growing season. The switchgrass acreage will be spread out over nine counties. Farmers are paid $450 per acre and plant on their own land, according to Ann Ryan, UT Office of Bioenergy Programs. UT provides the seed and university extension agents help with the planting, after which time the farmers assume full responsibility for their crops, including harvesting and baling.

Jerry Barr planted 16 acres last year and added another 16 this year, all in Monroe County near Madisonville. "We decided if the plant was going to be in our county, we needed to support it," he said when asked why he was participating in the program. "I just thought it was a good opportunity to divert some risk. We have a unique opportunity to be in on the ground floor of this, so why not take advantage of it." Barr doesn't plant any food crops on his land and says he might expand his switchgrass acreage again if the opportunity arises.

Genera Energy LLC, a company UT formed to operate the biorefinery, has hired private contractors to pick up the baled switchgrass using flat bed trailers, and also is responsible for storage. The crops are stored in a facility within three-fourths of a mile from the biorefinery, according to Sam Jackson, research assistant professor at UT and vice president of feedstock operations for Genera. Last year's crop is currently in storage awaiting the completion of the plant. The next harvest is slated for late October or early November.

Jerry Armstrong planted 78 acres of switchgrass last year and added another 65 this year. He has a total of 1,000 acres of cropland near Athens and also grows soybeans, corn and wheat. He says growing the energy crop requires the same routine as food crops. "I want the project to work and I have the land," he said. "It also provides cover for wildlife, which I'm interested in watching." The crop attracts small game such as quail and rabbits, he said.

As of May 1, more than 1,100 acres of seed on 19 farms had been planted, according to the Bioenergy Office. A total of about 2,600 acres have been enrolled in the first two years. Last year proved successful and this year's expansion will be beneficial, Jackson said. UT expects to expand again for 2010, possibly adding up to 3,000 more acres.