Cultivating a Crop of Hope
Long, Tall Switchgrass Has Promise Uprooting Corn as a Main Source Of Ethanol and as a Boon For Ex-Tobacco Farmers

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


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."

In the Washington area, the University of Maryland is growing switchgrass and using it as fuel. The stalks, stuffed into a boiler, are used to heat a maintenance building and a greenhouse on the Eastern Shore.

But that project is dwarfed by the switchgrass efforts underway in Virginia. The state has relatively little switchgrass planted -- fewer than 20 farmers are thought to be growing it on less than 1,000 acres. But Virginia Tech scientists say the grass could play a major role in creating a massive biofuel economy.

In a recent white paper, they suggested that switchgrass, along with woodchips, could provide a quarter of Virginia's gas, diesel fuel and heating oil needs and support 68 small fuel refineries in the state. Researchers estimated that the new fuel sources could create 10,500 jobs, including for farmers, truck drivers and refinery workers.

One reason for the optimism is obvious at the Virginia Tech research center in Orange. Months of dry weather had stunted the corn, but the switchgrass was still green and tall.

"It's been a drought year; [we] haven't put any water on it," said John Fike, a Virginia Tech professor who is looking into potential biofuels. "I mean, that's one of the reasons people are interested in switchgrass."

In the southern part of the state, officials are especially eager. They have been ready to embrace a new crop since tobacco, a standby since colonial times, began to fade. And now comes a crop that embraces them: Virginia Tech data show that, because of the state's relatively mild climate, switchgrass might grow much better in Virginia than in Iowa.

Linda Faye Wallace, the agricultural development director in Halifax County, has been making pitches to local farmers to plant switchgrass. The financial support for that work comes from the state commission aimed at helping former tobacco-growing regions.

She said the new crop could keep farms active -- and out of developers' hands -- for years to come.

"I want to grow ag products," said Wallace, whose county borders North Carolina. "I don't want to grow homes."

There's just one thing missing from the plans to make Virginia an epicenter of ethanol production. That, unfortunately, is ethanol.

The process of turning plants into fuel is a lot like turning them into liquor, scientists say: Sugars are extracted and fermented, producing alcohol. The problem with switchgrass is that its sugars are locked up chemically and are much harder to extract than those in corn.

Scientists have not found a way to produce solutions with the right concentrations of alcohol from switchgrass, said George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

"We can get to a beer, about a 5 percent alcohol solution," Douglas said. "We'd like to be able to get to a wine. We'd like to be able to get to about a 15 percent solution."

Another obstacle, Douglas said, is that the first commercial factory for switchgrass-based ethanol might not arrive for at least five years.

In Virginia, that prospect has left many farmers leery of planting the crop. It can take several years for the stalks to mature, so fields would remain idle while farmers hope for a payoff from a market that doesn't exist.

"I don't have the luxury of having an abundance of land that I can leave out for two or three years until it becomes established," said Bruce Pearce, a farmer who has resisted Wallace's sales pitch.

Now, switchgrass proponents in Virginia are looking for ways around the problems. They tell farmers that, while they wait for the ethanol market to open up, switchgrass can be used like hay, to feed cattle. They're looking for other ways to use switchgrass for fuel, like the factory that will turn it into heating oil.

But for now, switchgrass fields are rare in Virginia. One of the few is in a mountain valley west of Charlottesville, where Taylor Cole -- a former banker who runs a business designed to conserve rural land -- has planted 40 acres. He wants to persuade others to grow the stuff, so they'll be ready when the ethanol market takes off.

One day recently, Cole took a visitor on a Jeep tour of the field. In a scene that featured distant mountains and the Calfpasture River, the overgrown field of switchgrass was the ugliest thing in sight. But not to him.

"I tell you what, you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said.

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