Biofuel grass tested in Northwest Missouri

Sunday, February 21, 2010 | 4:38 p.m. CST

CORNING — As it gently swayed in the crisp winter breeze, the small batch of jumbo grass stood out against a dreary, snow-swept landscape. Unbeknownst to many drivers hurrying along nearby Interstate 29, this perennial grass could one day power their vehicles.

At Graves-Chapple Farm in Atchison County, researchers are exploring the local potential of Miscanthus. So far, so good.

"It's everything as advertised so far," said Jim Crawford, farm coordinator at Graves-Chapple. The yields produced on the researchers' test plot align with "all the literature out there," he said.

Miscanthus is a non-native biofuel candidate. One species of the grass can reach heights of 13 feet.

Local farmers became increasingly interested in the grass a few years back, largely the result of rampant media speculation. Could it, for instance, wean America off foreign oil? Soon, they were inquiring about its growth possibilities in Northwest Missouri. Crawford and company set out to provide answers.

Until somewhat recently, it was unclear if Miscanthus could readily grow in America. Major research universities, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, started test plots. The ensuing yields heartened the crop science community.

"A lot of this work already has been done in other areas of the country," said Crawford, who works at the Atchison County MU Extension Center. "We just wanted to try it in Northwest Missouri."

Local insight, as it turns out, could help area farmers capitalize on government programs like Biomass Crop Assistance Program .

The program is intended, in part, to reduce the financial risk for farmers who are interested in growing biofuel crops like Miscanthus.

But there's a catch.

"We don't have the process down to where it's economically viable yet," said Robert Kelly, an agricultural business specialist at the Buchanan County MU Extension Center.

In fact, no localized mass market currently exists for Miscanthus.

But it's best to test the grass in Northwest Missouri before a market materializes, Crawford insists. Area farmers need to know, for instance, if local soil can readily support Miscanthus. If so, when is the best time to plant and harvest?

"We're trying to answer those questions first," said Crawford.

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