Switchgrass to power Tennessee biofuels initiative

VONORE, TENNESSEE - Randall Peters stood in front of a row of switchgrass as high as his head.

Given the dry summer months, he wasn't certain how the perennial warm-season grass would fare.

"It's 5 to 6 feet tall," said Peters. "It got a lot taller than I thought it would be the first year."

He and his father, Dwaine Peters, planted about 70 acres in May for the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative. The initiative is a farm-to-fuel business plan developed by University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture researchers that models an industry capable of replacing 30 percent of Tennessee's current oil consumption with biofuels.

One day, father and son baled a small amount of switchgrass for an Oct. 14 groundbreaking of UT's biofuels pilot plant in Vonore. Switchgrass will be a primary feedstock for the university's cellulosic ethanol plant.

UT announced in July its partnership with DuPont Danisco for the pilot-scale biorefinery and a state-of-the-art research and development facility for cellulosic ethanol. The state allocated $40.7 million for construction last year and $8.25 million for research, farmer incentives and operating expenses for the biofuels initiative.

The switchgrass the Peterses baled will be used for decoration and as gifts for dignitaries like Gov. Phil Bredesen at the groundbreaking this month. The harvest for the bulk of 720 acres UT contracted for with East Tennessee farmers will be Nov. 1 or the first frost, whichever comes first. Sixteen farmers in Bradley, Loudon, McMinn, Monroe, Polk, Rhea and Roane counties are growing the dedicated energy crop.

The Peters' stand of switchgrass came in tall and thick, but it struggled May through July because of dry weather. Extreme weather of another kind aided the farmers. Hurricanes on the Gulf Coast in August brought rain, and the switchgrass took off after that, said Randall Peters.

Farmers and UT agriculture extension agents have been pleased with the results. Ken Goddard, a UT agriculture extension agent who helped all the farmers get started, said about 100 acres had to be replanted because of dry weather. He said it's been a success, though.

"It takes moisture to germinate seed," he said, "and that's where we had problems."

Switchgrass is a hardy plant once established. Its root system can be extensive, and its stalks are tough. Farmers won't cut them too short for fear they will puncture tires on balers or tractors. But during its early months of establishment, it's a "weak seedling," said Goddard. Its competitors tend to grow faster in the beginning and block switchgrass from sunlight.

Its seeds are delicate. To demonstrate, Bob Sliger, a UT extension agent in Monroe County, pulled a handful of the seeds from a stand on the Peters property. He collected several in one hand and pushed them around with the tip of an ink pen, their feathery husks breaking apart and exposing the small seeds. They can't be buried too deep, he said.

"I think once they get past the winter and spring they're going to be off to the races with this stand," said Sliger. "That's one of the advantages of this grass, once it gets going."


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