Authors: John Kruse, Michael Blazier, Richard Vlosky, Vadim Kochergin, Glenn Hughes, Dek Terrell, Paul Darby, Roger Smithhart
Research scientists and extension specialists from the LSU AgCenter are participating in federally-funded research and extension efforts to explore the potential that biofuel crops may hold for Louisiana producers. These efforts have great potential to expand the energy production portfolio of Louisiana. An ambitious five-year study will involve growing and selecting cultivars of energy cane (sugarcane varieties with characteristics better suited for biofuel production than conventional sugar production) and sweet sorghum well-adapted to Louisiana. Agronomic practices such as planting rates and dates as well as fertility will be developed for these crops. Processes for converting these crops into an array of biofuels and biochemicals are being developed in partnership with collaborators in the biofuels industry. Louisiana is particularly well-suited to develop biomass crops due to its climate, well-developed agricultural and energy infrastructure, and central location within the U.S.
In another study, a team of researchers led by Dr. Richard Vlosky submitted a survey to producers in Pointe Coupee, Concordia, Catahoula, Tensas, Madison, Richland, West Carroll and East Carroll Parishes, as well as several counties in Mississippi’s Delta region. The purpose of the survey was to gauge initial interest in producing biofuel crops, as well as find out what factors are important to making it a success. Well over 700 surveys were returned, providing a solid sample to study the responses. Roughly 60% of the respondents farmed less than 250 acres and 40% farmed more than 250 acres. Thirteen percent of the respondents farmed over 1000 acres, providing a good cross-section of producers. When asked their overall opinion of using biomass for bioenergy, two thirds of the respondents were somewhat or extremely positive. Only 17% were pessimistic that a bioenergy market will be competitive relative to conventional energy markets.
When growers were asked about their perceptions of biofuel crops, 56% felt that economically viable technologies already exist for converting biomass to bioenergy and half of all respondents believed that agricultural biomass transportation can be conducted with existing equipment. When it came to on-farm equipment needs, 43% believed that some sort of specialized equipment would be necessary to get the job done. A plurality (41%) neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement that converting agricultural biomass to bioenergy is a simple process that can be done at most agricultural processing facilities, and almost a third were not sure if agricultural biomass requires utilizing the entire crop as well as residual feedstock. These responses strongly indicate that growing biofuel crops is a new frontier for most producers, so agronomic education will be critical to its successful adoption by growers.
The majority of producers surveyed were clearly willing to give biofuels the benefit of the doubt when it comes to potential impact on the environment, with roughly three-fourths of respondents believing that raising a biofuel crop would not negatively impact wildlife, air and water quality, or soil quality. The majority of growers surveyed felt that government had a clear role to play in the development of this potential market. Two-thirds of respondents felt that tax credits should be given to landowners, harvesters, and companies that produce and utilize biomass for bioenergy. Well over half believed that subsidies should be provided as an incentive to companies for selling biomass residues from agricultural operations. Over 60% agreed that incentive programs should be provided to defray the costs of establishing biomass crop species and that secured loans should be provided to develop and construct commercial-scale bio-refineries. Almost three quarters of responding growers specifically saw a lead role for research institutions such as theLSU AgCenterwhen they agreed that grants should be awarded for research and development capable of advancing biomass production technologies. When it came down to individual participation, the jury is still out: When asked, “Would you be willing to participate in management activities specifically geared toward biomass production from your agricultural land?” the response was virtually evenly split, with 49% saying “No” and 51% saying “Yes.”
The fact that half of responding growers were willing to participate in bioenergy feedstock production and the high percentage of neutral responses to many of the questions indicates that many producers would benefit from additional information. It was also concluded that a gap exists between the desire to utilize agricultural biomass and the current viability of bio-based markets. The survey seems to reveal that a biofuel-based crop production system in Louisiana is still in its infancy, and that many producers are open to the idea of making it part of their production systems. They just need more information before they can make a decision.