But Many Farmers
Are Still Skeptical
BY BOB HURLEY
Switchgrass is still a relatively new term and a largely unknown crop among Greene County farmers.
But East Tennessee agricultural researchers say they will be converting switchgrass into fuel before the end of the year.
"The biorefinery at Vonore is scheduled to begin production of cellulosic ethanol by the middle of December," said Dr. Kelly Tiller, president and chief executive officer of the Knoxville-based General Energy Corp., LLC.
Dr. Tiller, a former tobacco policy analyst at the University of Tennessee, was named to her new position last year after the Tennessee government, the University of Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Energy, and DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol Corp., LLC, began partnering to pioneer the process of turning grass into gas.
"We are pleased with every phase of the project," Dr. Tiller said of the mammoth and complex effort aimed at reducing U.S. dependence on imported energy.
"We are making progress on all fronts," she went on, "from growing the switchgrass to the research of turning it into a renewable fuel."
Dr. Tiller added that all phases of the construction of the biorefinery are "on track," and that enthusiasm over the entire project remains high.
"This project represents a tremendous opportunity for agriculture in Tennessee," she said.
Asked when the farmers of Greene County and other counties of Northeast Tennessee might become involved in the actual production of switchgrass, Dr. Tiller said the answer would be "pure speculation."
Timelines for the project are difficult to formulate, she said, but she thinks that switchgrass will be a viable option for most Tennessee farmers in less than 10 years.
Other researchers connected with the huge project basically agree with the "10 years or sooner" timeline, but many Greene County farmers fear the movement will come too late to help them out of the hole that the current agricultural economy has put them in.
MORE RESEARCH NEEDED
"We might be just three to five years away from our first commercial biorefinery in the state," said Ken Goddard, extension biofuels specialist at UT.
"But we've got to be careful here and not get the cart in front of the horse," he said.
"The horse, in this case, is the research that is going to give us the answers on how to convert grass to gas. It takes time to develop answers. It is as simple at that."
But the "10 years or sooner" timeline that Goddard and others have been talking about for some time is "still a good number," he says, in terms of how long it could take to make switchgrass a household word in all 95 counties of the state.
Rob Ellis, director of the UT Research and Education Center of Greeneville, who is involved in the switchgrass research project on a limited scale, thinks farmers in this part of the state will be seeing opportunities develop in five years or less.
"I think we will be seeing a major difference in the big picture of bioenergy in the next five years," Ellis said this week while surveying the center's research plots of switchgrass.
"If other countries can convert a renewable resource such as switchgrass to fuel, then surely the U.S. can do it," he said.
"Here at the Center, we've demonstrated that switchgrass can be successfully grown in our part of the state, but, just like all other crops, there are some challenges," Ellis said.
"The main difficulty we have found with switchgrass," he explained, "is the germination of the seed itself. Our plots have done well once we get germinaton, but switchgrass takes a long time to germinate."
LONG DISTANCE TO VONORE
Even before the constuction of the biorefinery at Vonore began last year, farmers in Greene County knew they were out of the production loop because of the distance involved.
Early on in planning for the biorefinery, a 50-mile circle was drawn around Vonore, with all the initial switchgrass coming from within the circle.
Vonore is almost 40 miles southwest of Knoxville, a location which meant that farmers in this end of the state would be only spectators during the early stages of what some are calling "the biofuels revolution in Tennessee."
"Our farmers felt a little left out," said Tony Bird, president of the Greene County Farm Bureau, "and rightfully so."
Because of the 50-mile rule in producing switchgrass for the biorefinery, Bird says he has seen little-to-no interest in the crop in Greene County for the time being.
"We were too far up the road," Bird smiled, "so they cut us off. There just isn't that much interest in switchgrass in Greene County right now."
Asked if he knew of any switchgrass-growers in this part of the state, Bird initially said that he didn't.
"But let me chew on that a minute," he said. "Surely, there must be at least one switchgrass grower out there somewhere."
Less than half an hour later, Bird called back to report that there is at least one in Greene County.
"There's a farmer out near Limestone named Mike Alexander who is doing a good job with some switchgrass hay," Bird said.
COUNTY FARMER INVOLVED
"My interest in switchgrass begins and ends with hay," Alexander said when contacted at his home near the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park.
"It is very good to me as hay. The cows love it, and I don't have to spend a dime on fertilizer for it," he said.
Switchgrass is a warm-season perennial grass that is native to much of this country. Alexander said he favors it and other warm-season grasses over fescue, the most common pasture and hay crop in East Tennessee.
Fescue, however, is a cool-season grass that provides very limited forage during the hottest months of the year.
Dr. Gary Bates, professor of plant science at the University of Tennessee, says switchgrass can indeed out-produce some other forages, especially fescue.
"Switchgrass that is grown for forage can produce up to twice as much feed as fescue. That's pretty impressive by any standard," Bates said from his Knoxville office this week.
In addition to its primary use as a biomass, Tiller, Goddard and other researchers in the biofuels project have said repeatedly that farmers should look at "other uses and other opportunities with switchgrass."
For Alexander, who emphasizes that growing switchgrass for a biorefinery is not part of his future plans, the emergence of switchgrass as a forage crop came along at precisely the right time.
"Fertilizer prices were going out the roof, and cattle prices were coming down," Alexander said. "I needed to find something to cut expenses in a hurry.
"I had experimented with some other warm-season grasses, and while I liked them fine, switchgrass was easier for me to drill into the ground, and my germination rate was excellent.
"While I have had very good success with switchgrass, I have absolutely no plans to ever grow it for anything other than hay for my cattle."
NOT THAT HOPEFUL
Other farmers fear they will be "too old or too broke" to take advantage of the move to switchgrass.
"I'll be dead or broke by the time switchgrass comes to Chuckey," said Lowell Wayne Brown, one of East Tennessee's largest tobacco- and grain-growers.
"As for me and my house, we will stick with tobacco and corn and soybeans as long as they pay the bills," Brown said. "Tobacco, in spite of all you've heard and read, is still the main thing when it comes to dollars returned per acre.
"I'm just not the least bit optimistic that switchgrass will ever be a part of my farming plan."
Butch Shaw, who continues to expand his farming operations at Mohawk, fears that he, too, will not be a good soldier in the biofuels revolution being forecast.
"It sounds like another fad to me," said Shaw, "and I've never gotten too excited over fads."
Because of his capability to grow a large amount of corn and other grain crops, Shaw has become established as a major supplier of livestock feed for other farmers in western Greene County.
"I'm going to stick with what works for me," he said.
A number of smaller farmers were contacted as part of the research for this story, and in spite of the attention and resources that the biofuels movement is receiving in Tennessee at this time, none of them reported an interest in growing switchgrass, or even learning more about it.
"We hope to trump all the criticism with the research first and then with the production of fuel," said Goddard, who remains one of the leading cheerleaders for the project in the state.
"This can be done," he said. "Look at Brazil. They did it. Why can't we do it?"
Brazil, he pointed out, has become almost totally energy-independent after an aggressive approach to the production of ethanol and biodiesel fuel.
Goddard continued, "My job is to work with the farmers of East Tennessee in order to produce the biomass needed for a project of this scope.
"I am very optimistic that our farmers can do their part and that our chemists can get the research done, and we can lessen our dependence on foreign energy.
"But this is a brand-new industry, and we're still trying to get it kick-started."
Goddard added, "It is very big and very worthwhile. We must not stop until we are able to fill our tanks with a product that we can grow ourselves every year.
"And we must not fail."