Biomass Production Has No Place in the Cornbelt

Prairie Gleanings

Let's cool the biomass talk. The market for energy grass doesn't exist.

Published on: July 28, 2011
At face value, using biomass to produce a liquid fuel or fire an electricity generation plant is an exciting prospect. However, there’s one big sticking point – you can’t feed miscanthus to livestock.

It seems too often the folks who advocate planting thousands of acres of prime Illinois farmland are missing a key point when it comes to king corn. It’s highly marketable (not to mention profitable). Corn has several primary markets: ethanol/industrial use, feed and exports. Miscanthus and switchgrass has only an inkling of one market: industrial use.

I’ve sat through a number of conferences and lectures on biomass production. Researchers tend to lament the lack of production for these grasses. Yet, they willingly admit the market is very soft for them. If farmers took their advice in kick starting this market, it seems they would play into factory owners’ hands by supplying an abundance of cheap energy grass that no one else wants.

Instead, it seems the only way to get this ball rolling is contract production. With corn sitting solidly in the $6 range, the opportunity cost for planting energy grass is extremely high. Factor in the fact that Illinois farmers are very good at growing corn and soybeans, and it seems clear the researchers are barking up the wrong tree.

Lastly, many of the models I’ve seen for making biomass production profitable include subsidy payments from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program and the elusive carbon credit. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have my profitability hinging on so many ephemeral conditions. If a big market sprung up contingent on BCAP assistance, this cut-crazy Congress may suddenly divest the entire program Then you’re left with a field full of tall grass that looks pretty. Maybe you could talk a photographer into using it as a backdrop for photos.

At this point, it seems the only viable source of biomass is corn stover. Of course, start removing stover and you’re taking nutrients out of the soil profile. A number of university research teams are currently working to put a value on the nutrient value.

I still don’t see a place for large-scale biomass production. With the world population growing, we don’t have excess land sitting around. The demand fundamentals for corn and soybeans are too strong. Maybe you feel differently. Though, driving across Illinois, it seems most farmers agree with me.

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