Grow Grass – Legal Stuff – For Energy?

Northern New York research into bioenergy crops expands.

Published on: May 15, 2008

Northern New York farmland is well-suited to produce grasses and legumes as bioenergy crops, contends Cornell University Plant Breeder Donald Viands. He and a team of researchers from Cornell and Cornell Cooperative Extension are evaluating a crop trial started in 2007. And this month, they'll be planting a new warm and cool season grass trial plot at the William H. Miner Ag Research Institute in Chazy, N.Y.

Perenial grasses and legumes have potential to be more economical and environmentally sustainable for making biofuel than corn for ethanol production, he says. "They can be harvested for several years with very little input. Perennial grasses reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and reduce soil erosion through extensive root systems."

In 2007, the Cornell research team planted warm-season grasses (switchgrass, big bluestem, indiangrass, Eastern gamagrass and coastal panic grass) at Belleville-Henderson Central School in Belleville, N.Y. A grass stand of approximately 40% in the establishment year at the school is a good indication of a successful planting, adds Viands.

Some varieties established better than others. Read a full report of the 2007 results online at: www.nnyagdev.org.

The Miner Institute trial will be similar to the trial at Belleville. It'll also include cool season grasses (domestic tall wheatgrass, reed canarygrass, tall fescue, and smooth bromegrass).

Needed for coming cellulosic plants

"Large quantities of biomass will be needed to supply the cellulosic pilot ethanol conversion plants planned for New York. Several are expected to be in operation in 12 to 18 months, predicts Viands.

Cool season grasses are well adapted to the North Country, but may not yield as much as warm season grasses in a low input management system, he adds. Energy (BTUs) and ethanol produced per acre from the various grasses planted in the New York trials will be assessed along with seedling vigor, ease of crop establishment and susceptibility for weed encroachment, disease and insect damage.

The Northern New York trials will be compared with results from New York Farm Viability Institute funded trials in other regions of New York State. Cornell University is one of five U.S. land-grant universities designated as regional Sun Grant Initiative Centers. The Sun Grant Initiative is a national program committed to strengthening rural economies and communities through support of biomass-based industries and ag sustainability.

For more on biofuel production in Northern New York, visit the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program Web site noted above. It's a farmer-driven research, outreach and education program for Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.