Switchgrass studied as energy source

Switchgrass is not readily recognized by the public as a valuable commodity. However, as gas prices continue to rise, interest in alternative energy sources is rising as well. This could spell good news for consumers as well as farmers in Tennessee and throughout the Southeast.

Switchgrass is among the crops easily grown in the region, reaching 10 tons per acre in some studies. It can also be converted to electricity or liquid fuel.

A study by the University of Tennessee Agricultural Policy Analysis Center suggests that switchgrass could have been a moneymaker for farmers between 1996 and 2000 — years during which commodity prices were low. The study indicates that if switchgrass had competed with major crops for acreage during that period about 22 million acres may have been converted to switchgrass production, because prices for the raw commodity ($40 per dry ton) exceeded those of the major commodities like corn and soybeans.

Earlier this year, UT agricultural economists and the Tennessee Agricultural Statistical Service took the next logical step by assessing current producer attitudes toward growing switchgrass. A research team surveyed farmers across Tennessee about growing the energy-producing crop.

Results of their analyses may help farmers and industries understand some of the barriers toward sustainable production of bio-based energy from this commodity.

Burton English, a UT professor of agricultural economics and member of the research team, encouraged farmers who received the survey in the mail to participate. “Completing the questionnaire only takes about 15 minutes, and all individual responses will be kept confidential,” he said.

English emphasized that results from the survey have the potential to benefit the nation's economy. “Recent studies by the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, suggest potential synergism exists between the nation' energy and agricultural policies. A strong relationship could benefit farmers, local economies, the power industry, and the environment,” English said.

Other members of the research team include Kim Jensen, Chris Clark, Jamey Menard, and Marie Walsh of the UT Department of Agricultural Economics and Debra Kenerson of the Tennessee Agricultural Statistical Service.

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