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Cultivating a Crop of Hope

John Fike, a Virginia Tech researcher, combs through switchgrass at the school's agricultural center in Orange, Va. Signs that the crop might be able to replace corn as a major source of ethanol are evident at the center -- the drought has stunted the corn there, but the switchgrass is healthy.
John Fike, a Virginia Tech researcher, combs through switchgrass at the school's agricultural center in Orange, Va. Signs that the crop might be able to replace corn as a major source of ethanol are evident at the center -- the drought has stunted the corn there, but the switchgrass is healthy. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

ORANGE, Va.

When it grows high and thick in midsummer, the crop that might fill Virginia's gas tanks, revitalize its farm belt and keep its mud and manure out of the Chesapeake Bay looks like . . . weeds. Like the world's most overgrown lawn.

At a Virginia Tech agricultural research center here, in this small town west of Fredericksburg, the switchgrass plot is an unruly, waving thicket of seven-foot-tall green stalks. But it only looks neglected: This is one of the center's most prized plants, a formerly obscure prairie grass now projected to be a major source of farm-grown fuel.

"That'd be some energy, right there," said Dave Starner, the center's superintendent, holding a freshly cut bundle of it.

Researchers across the country think that switchgrass could help supplant corn as a source for the fast-growing ethanol industry. In Virginia, some officials are trying to make the state the Iowa of the new cash crop. They're urging farmers to grow it and envision dozens of refineries that will turn the stalks into fuel.

"It's the future of the rural community and the world as you know it," said Ken Moss, an entrepreneur in south-central Virginia who is using some state funds for a factory that turns switchgrass into a substitute for heating oil.

But such efforts have hit a snag: Scientists haven't perfected the process that turns switchgrass into ethanol. So for today, the Crop That Could Change Virginia is just hay with better publicity.

The plant behind all the hoopla, Panicum virgatum, looks a bit like a corn plant without the cob. It has a thin, rigid stalk with a feathery tassel of seeds. Scientists say switchgrass probably grew wild across the eastern two-thirds of the United States for centuries before Europeans arrived.

But, except for plant biologists and some biofuel researchers, few Americans had heard of the plant before last year's State of the Union address. President Bush listed switchgrass among potential sources for ethanol, a gasoline substitute sought as a replacement for imported oil.

Researchers say switchgrass has much to recommend it over corn, the source of almost all U.S. ethanol. For one thing, it isn't also food -- the ethanol-driven demand for corn has pushed up prices on a range of items, from tortillas to steak. For another, switchgrass requires little of the irrigation and fertilizer necessary to grow corn, a prima donna among crops.

Environmentalists have also praised the plant for the ability of its roots to filter out pollutants that often wash off farm fields.

"It's better for the land. It's better for the water," said Josh Dorner, a Sierra Club spokesman. Compared to corn, he said, "it's far and away the way to go."


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