Less-productive ground could be home to future bioenergy crops

Those who romanticize agriculture often picture tractors making their way through peaceful, out-of-the-way fields with nary a house in site. But, if current MSU Extension research proves fruitful, farmers may one day harvest crops with low-flying planes overhead or cars whizzing past.

Dennis Pennington, an MSU Extension educator who specializes in bioenergy, is working with university researchers and government agencies to identify possibilities for producing cellulosic and oil-based fuels in Michigan in a multi-phase project titled “Freeways to Fuels.” Their overall goal is to determine whether biofuels can be produced on nontraditional or marginal land — an idea that may open doors for Michigan’s farmers.

“When producing crops for biofuels, we don’t want to take away land that is being used for food crops,” Pennington explains. “So the question is, where else could we plant? Michigan has a lot of nontraditional land with poorer soils that might provide a location for biofuels crop production.”

Key Points

MSU Extension is studying possibility of growing biofuel crops on marginal lands.

The first trials will take place on highway right-of-ways and airport grounds.

Research may help farmers realize potential of underutilized land.

That nontraditional land includes highway right-of-ways and land surrounding airports. “It may open up opportunities for farmers to lease currently unused land to grow bioenergy crops,” Pennington says. And, he adds, it may mean that some farmers can transform poor-performing soils into profits.

“If you’re growing food crops successfully on highly productive land, I’m not going to suggest you switch,” Pennington says. “But if you have some poor-producing land that just isn’t giving you a good return on your investment, biofuel crops may be a viable option.”

The current phase of the project will focus on growing switchgrass, canola, oriental mustard and pennycress. The latter three oilseed crops will be harvested, and then oil will be pressed out and converted to biodiesel and tested for jet fuel. Switchgrass crops can be used for cellulosic ethanol, a type of ethanol produced from the breakdown of cellulose in plant materials.

“Corn will remain as a stable base for biofuel production, but federal policy dictates that growth in biofuels will be mainly in the form of cellulose-based fuels,” Pennington says. “By 2022, we will have to blend 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels into our supply stream. This is an increase of 270% from today’s production.”

Nontraditional production

The research team is using highway right-of-ways, vacant urban land and airport property in the trial. Even though farmland isn’t included in the project, farmers will still be able to benefit from their findings.

“There are a lot of farmers that may have three or four less productive fields that may be perfect for producing bioenergy crops,” Pennington says.

According to Pennington, current policy will be a major driver behind developing a market for bioenergy crops in the next five to six years. At that time, he predicts companies will go to farmers to contract the production of these crops.

“We’re doing the research now, so we can better help farmers identify what crops to grow and what to look for in those contracts when the time comes,” he says.

In the short term, one aspect of the grant Pennington’s team received provides funding for the equipment needed to make biodiesel. As a part of the project, they are growing 25 acres of oilseed on four farms, which will be processed into biodiesel using this equipment. The equipment will be mobile and able to travel from farm to farm.

“I could see some farmers being interested in using the equipment, and there might be some opportunity to partner with them to make biodiesel,” Pennington says.

Thinking big or small

In the longer run, whether farmers seek to grow bioenergy crops exclusively or only as a means to supplement their income is very dependent on the farmer, Pennington says. Some growers may choose to specialize, invest in equipment and custom-harvest bioenergy crops, and others might plant a few acres. If farmers are interested in growing crops for renewable fuels, there’s a lot of flexibility.

The biggest recommendation to growers is to keep their eyes and ears open for developments in the bioenergy arena.

“I can’t tell anyone to go out and start planting bioenergy crops today,” Pennington says. “But pay attention to what develops. It won’t be long before these crops could be Michigan’s next big thing.”

Sollman is a Michigan State University senior studying agriscience education, and agriculture and natural resources communications.


AESTHETIC AND PRODUCTIVE: This variety of 26 mixed prairie plants has the potential to make marginal lands profitable while adding beauty to right-of-ways.


CANOLA CROP: Biofuel crops like canola may be popping up on Interstate medians and airport fields soon.

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.