Giant Miscanthus: The Answer to Non-irrigated, Marginal Soil in Northeast Arkansas
by Kent Politsch, Chief, FSA Public Affairs
There’s a lot that a farmer can grow in northeast Arkansas. Most producers choose rice and cotton. Some plant soybeans, corn and sorghum; row crops, mostly, according to Charles Glover, manager, Ritter Agribusiness.
Glover works with landowners, their tenants and producers who farm 40,000 acres between Jonesboro, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn., much of it in Poinsett County.
Poinsett County, says Glover, is the second leading rice producing county in the United States.
So why is Glover participating in the USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA)? And why is he considering converting some of that farmland to giant miscanthus, a non-food crop that is becoming a popular biomass energy source?
“For our landowners right now, it’s pure economics. We have an asset in our land, and miscanthus has an opportunity to be the best use of that part of our land,” says Glover.
The farm manager says many of the acres producing rice and cotton are irrigated. There are fields where irrigation doesn’t work. Land that lies near power lines, for instance. Other crops won’t produce well on non-irrigated soil. Giant miscanthus might. That’s what Glover and the landowners are hoping.
“I visited with folks from MFA, then talked to our landowners and told them what the program was and they just agreed to try.”
MFA Oil Biomass, LLC, is the BCAP project area sponsor in Arkansas. A BCAP project area is a designated geographic area or a set of counties in this case where a specific amount of acreage is approved for producing a biomass crop. The biomass crop in this BCAP project area is giant miscanthus, a sterile, thick grass that grows up to 12 feet tall. When harvested, dried and compressed into pellets, it burns efficiently and is far friendlier to the climate than fossil fuels.
“The Obama Administration is committed to finding alternatives to oil that we have to buy from foreign nations,” says Arkansas FSA State Executive Director Linda Newkirk. “We are proud of the BCAP efforts taking place in our state. We know we are making a significant contribution when we are encouraging production of a non-food, renewable energy crop that science tells us burns cleaner than fossil fuels. And in the meantime, BCAP helps Arkansas add jobs and new sources of income for our farmers.”
FSA granted Arkansas’s sponsor, MFA Oil Biomass, LLC, 6,588 acres to grow miscanthus.
Glover says it wasn’t hard to sell BCAP to the landowners and farmers because they weren’t making much money on their marginal land anyway. “Input costs are so high. Without irrigation, we weren’t making much on the land.” He says with miscanthus, there’s not much outlay of capital, so BCAP becomes a win-win for everybody.
Glover admits he doesn’t know if the crop will succeed. The farmers were prepared to plant the miscanthus rhizomes in the first week of April if weather conditions remained suitable. After that, it will be at least two years before they expect to harvest their first crop, and that one won’t be as good as the next one and the one after that if the predictions are right.
The major benefit of giant miscanthus growing on the farmers’ marginal soil is that it produces a crop for up to 20 years without replanting. “Those are low capital inputs to produce a profit,” says Glover. That’s what excites him and the others about the crop. “If it works, there will be a lot of acres that we can put into miscanthus.”
Glover says the farms that he manages have committed 260 acres to the BCAP project area. And, no, he and the producers wouldn’t have committed the acres without the support of FSA and its BCAP program.
The knowledge that MFA Oil Biomass, LLC, was building a conversion facility in the area made the difference, Glover says. Otherwise, without the facility there wouldn’t be a market for their giant miscanthus. It’s a partnership.
Newkirk concurs. The project area sponsor and FSA have an important business stake in BCAP. Energy independence is going to take work and incentives to plant renewable crops, says Newkirk. “There is no short-term solution to our energy needs. We need to invest in longer term solutions that assure our children and our children’s children that there will be adequate, affordable and safe energy for their future.”
About the future with giant miscanthus, Glover says, “I’d like you to call me back in two years and let me tell you a glowing story.”