the 18 years since I started research with energy crops I have become
convinced that bioenergy can make a significant contribution to our
economy and help preserve our environment. I have also developed a good
understanding of many problems that face our country as a whole, and
especially agriculture and forestry in the South. In addition, I have
studied attempts to alleviate some of these problems, such as
implementation of farm programs to partially offset the negative impacts
of over-producing our major commodities (corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and
few years ago I conducted a survey among agricultural and forest
landowners in Alabama to investigate their interest in growing switchgrass
for energy. One of the questions in the survey asked whether government
incentives would be expected and over 70% of the respondents said
“No!” Some wrote very strong additional comments, like “Keep the
government out of this!” Here it must be emphasized that I do not feel
existing farm programs should be terminated without providing some
alternative. What I am suggesting is that we should be working harder to
develop new crops, products and markets to achieve independence.
New Crops, Products
It might sound crazy to say this, but efficiency is our biggest downfall. Yes, U.S. farmers are among the most innovative people in the world, and their remarkable efficiency has resulted in the supply of their commodities outstripping the demand. The strong dollar has hurt us by restricting the size of international markets. Even with the recent weakening of our currency, any change for the better is not likely to be big enough to absorb our production capability.
We live in a rapidly changing world. Those who adapt to change will prosper, and those who do not will be left behind. I fear that other countries, like Brazil, are doing better at this than we are. I have already pointed out that what we really need is new crops, new uses for existing crops, and new markets. But what and when was the last new crop we saw in the U.S.? Soybeans in the ‘60s! That was over 40 years ago.
Sadly, most of the research conducted by the USDA is aimed primarily at making us more efficient at producing existing commodities, rather than developing those new crops, products and markets that we need. So it is aggravating the over-supply problem instead of alleviating it. Increasing efficiency and yield makes sense only if demand for our commodities exceeds supply. However, right now this is not the case and no change in this trend is expected in the foreseeable future.
Studies conducted at the University of Tennessee have shown that a new biomass market for energy would result in some land that is currently in traditional crops being switched to energy crops. One result of this would be less over-production of traditional crops. In turn, this would lead to higher prices for these crops, less costly farm programs, and greater net income for farmers as a result of the new market for biomass. So it would be a win-win-win situation for farmers, the government and taxpayers. This message needs to get through to our elected officials in both state and federal governments, and they need to make some changes soon.
Biomass Resources in Alabama
Alabama is definitely a biomass rich state. According to the Department of Energy we could easily generate enough power from biomass to meet all our needs for residential electricity. That’s a lot of energy, but if we really put our minds to it we could do even better.
We do not have those marvelous soils of the Mid-West, and therefore cannot compete well in grain production. However, our long summer growing season makes us superior in the production of a wide range of perennial grasses that could serve as excellent energy feedstocks. In total, we already have over 4 million acres in grass, with tall fescue, bahiagrass and bermudagrass being the most abundant. All the equipment needed to harvest and supply this material to energy plants is also available. While most of the land in grass is currently being used to graze beef cattle, portions of it could be diverted at very short notice to produce hay for energy if an attractive biomass feedstock market were developed.
Another huge and growing biomass resource in Alabama is wood. We are blessed with an enviable capability in forest production, and our forest inventory is increasing due to the crisis in the pulpwood industry. For example, relatively recent pulp mill closures in the Mobile area have resulted in the disappearance of a market for over 4 million tons of wood worth more than $100 million annually. This trend is resulting in depressed pulpwood prices and struggling rural economies. Current predictions suggest that it will continue. Energy plants that used wood as fuel could provide an alternative market for at least some of this wood. Furthermore, if we had energy plants that processed wood, our losses from events like Hurricane Ivan would certainly be reduced.
Finally, broiler litter is a third very major biomass resource that could be used to generate energy in Alabama. Broiler production in the state generates over 1.5 million tons of litter per year. Safe disposal of this material is becoming a major environmental concern which could have serious consequences for the broiler industry, an industry vitally important to the economy of our state. Therefore, use of broiler litter to produce energy would also reduce land application of litter and alleviate some environmental concerns.
Future articles in this series will describe how we can use biomass resources in Alabama to produce energy.