Switchgrass a Win-Win for Farmers, Environment

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

CHESTERTOWN, Md. — Farmers and environmentalists often go together like oil and water.

But the Chester River Association (CRA), the Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI) Inc. and other farming and environmental groups share a common interest in a potentially useful crop — switchgrass.

Switchgrass has the potential to be a useful crop on marginal land such as wet or swampy areas, land where good yields of soybeans and corn just will not grow, according to the CRA. While providing a potential new cash crop, the tall grass and its massive root system also hold those marginal soils in place.

The result is a crop which can potentially make money from marginal farmland and protect the environment at the same time.

Switchgrass is native to eastern and southern North America as well as the Great Plains. The tall grass is being considered as a potential bedding use by the poultry industry. It is prized by the mushroom industry in places like eastern Pennsylvania, where it is used as compost.

It can also, because of a high carbon content, be used as fuel. Washington College in Chestertown uses the switchgrass as a heating fuel, according to the CRA.

The grass also takes up nutrients, allowing it to be used in nutrient trading in some areas. Ethanol is another potential use, according to the CRA.

But perhaps the most intriguing opportunity is for farmers to make some money from marginal land. Bob Parks, marketing analyst for the CRA, said that the best way to protect the Chester River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, may be keeping the land surrounding the river under the plow.

Farmland, he said, provides a better opportunity to protect the fragile Chester River than shopping malls or housing developments. Parks was among several CRA officials who spoke at a recent teleconference on the potential for switchgrass.

The Nature Conservancy has also been working with DPI to consider how switchgrass can be used to both help farmers and protect water quality.

Parks said an estimated 5 to 8 percent of farmland in the Chester River watershed is considered marginal.

While it would be foolish to use high-quality land to grow switchgrass, he said it makes sense to use marginal lands, like low and marshy areas, “where you aren’t making any money.”

“The best use of our land is agriculture. ... Healthy farms mean a healthy Chester River,” he said.

Jim Passwaters, the vegetative environmental buffers (VEB) coordinator for DPI, said poultry farmers have started “planting switchgrass in front of fans to help capture dust and take up any excess nutrients. Switchgrass was chosen due to its height, extensive root structure and its low maintenance attributes.”

“I discovered that many poultry farms have unused land that could potentially be planted in switchgrass,” he added.

“This would eliminate mowing during summer months. Also along ditches, switchgrass could help filter any nutrients that may flow from fields. We started looking to see if there were any uses for the switchgrass.”

Passwaters said switchgrass is being researched as an alternative poultry litter in poultry houses. The idea is that farmers may be able to potentially grow the material for their farms and sell excess to others.

Passwaters said that one Amick farm and one Perdue farm have tested the litter. Amick is now allowing its use for their houses, he said.

“The experiment has so far shown it to be a viable alternative,” he said. “At this time, a little more research is necessary but it does appear that this may be acceptable in the near future.”

“It’s one of the tools in a farmer’s toolbox,” said Amy Jacobs, watershed restoration coordinator for the Maryland/DC Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“They (farmers) would make money and we would have an environmental benefit,” she said. “We don’t want to see agriculture disappear. ... That’s for sure.”

Jacobs explained that switchgrass takes up nutrients like nitrogen, thus preventing additional nutrient runoff into nearby waterways. Because switchgrass can be grown with little or no fertilizer, that also helps prevent nutrient runoff.

Nutrients are necessary, but too many nutrients from septic systems, suburban lawns, farm runoff and other sources are often linked to water quality problems like eutrophication and algae blooms.

Jacobs said the cooperative efforts with DPI have been “real positive. ... I think it’s a great opportunity.”

For more information about the potential of switchgrass, visit the CRA website at www.makeveryacrecount.org.

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