A Bold Step in Tennessee

November 14, 2008 06:00 PM
Take a good look at east Tennessee's hilly fields and you quickly see why the promise of a new crop enthuses farmers here. With the region's dairies vanishing, tobacco no longer much of an economic factor and a 125-bu. average corn yield considered pretty decent, farmers perked up their ears when they heard University of Tennessee (UT) researchers talking about switchgrass.

Growing grass is what farmers in this part of the state do best, so they were naturally intrigued by switchgrass becoming the feedstock for a new cellulosic ethanol industry touted by Gov. Phil Bredesen. The state pumped $40.7 million into a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant being constructed in Vonore, Tenn. In late 2009, the 250,000-gal.-capacity plant should produce its first ethanol, thanks to a partnership between the university and DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC. The plant, however, is designed for research, rather than commercial production.

To fire up, the plant needs switchgrass, so this past spring the university contracted with 16 farmers within a 50-mile radius of the site to plant 723 acres of it. The program will add as much as 2,000 acres in 2009 and perhaps more than that in 2010.

UT moved Ken Goddard to the area to work with the switchgrass farmers. A former Extension agent in Henry County, Tenn., Goddard oversaw a pilot program there with five farmers to determine if switchgrass could be grown effectively in the area.

"This thing is very unique. Farmers are partnering with UT on a crop they've never seen before. They're investing time, land and out-of-pocket costs,” Goddard explains. "There's lots of potential, but the university is helping manage the risks with a three-year contractual agreement.”

It looked appealing to Randall Peters, a former dairy producer from Madisonville, Tenn., so he put 70 acres into the program.

"Switchgrass looks good on marginal ground. It's hard for corn to be profitable around here. The main thing that interests me personally, though, is to help do something that decreases our dependency on foreign oil,” Peters says.

The desire to help the country become more energy independent spurred David Richesin, another former dairy farmer in Philadelphia, Tenn., to grow switchgrass. He no-tilled 39 acres on a steep hillside.
"I'd love to see the U.S. independent of foreign oil and am thrilled agriculture can be part of it,” Richesin says.

"Just imagine what our economy might be like if we were investing the billions of dollars sent overseas for fuel right here in our local communities. I've never been afraid to ask questions and adapt to change,” he adds. "Alternative energy is something I'm interested in.”

Switchgrass is also a low-input crop, which interests Alfred Davis, Philadelphia, Tenn., who planted 18 acres. "It's a perennial and you use no nitrogen the year it's established,” he says.

At the pilot plant's groundbreaking, Gov. Bredesen called the venture "a bold step.” Farmers hope it is the first of many toward establishing the bio-fuels industry in the state. 

Gator Gas

Florida recently dedicated its own small pilot cellulosic ethanol plant at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. Designed to research a wide range of cellulosic feedstocks, such as crop residues and yard waste, while recycling water and turning byproducts into energy, it is funded by the state.

The Florida state legislature recently designated $20 million for a south Florida cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant in partnership with Florida Crystals Corp. The plant will use sugar cane bagasse for a feedstock. In addition, University of Florida cellulosic research is being used in a 1.4-million-gallon demonstration plant in Jennings, La., operated by Verenium Corp. The company also put the Florida cellulosic techniques to work in a 1.4-million-liter-per-year plant in Osaka, Japan. 

Web Extra
Go to www.FarmJournal.com to read "Welcome to the Grassoline State,” Summer 2007, Farm Journal.

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at

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