Do Fuel Crops Pay? Farmers Get A Way To Know

Your honor, we plead guilty to the charge of never having viewed ag-based biofuels from the perspective of the farmer, who, it is clear to us now, having looked at the new University of Illinois feedstock cost and profitability calculator, faces a complex question in deciding whether to grow for food or fuel, and on what land to grow.

To right this injustice, here’s a story about the first version of the calculator, which is up and available with data for three states – the university’s home state of Illinois as well as Michigan and Oklahoma.

food vs. fuel

Switchgrass (image via National Resources Conservation Service)

“We looked at poplar, Miscanthus, switchgrass, prairie grass, and stover,” University of Illinois agricultural economist Madhu Khanna said in a statement. “They behave differently in different parts of the country, so this initial calculator shows the contrast between three very different climate and rainfall regions.”

From a green-energy advocate point of view, the most interesting aspect of the calculator might be that it allows farmers to look at the costs of converting to energy crops on both currently cropped and marginal land. Marginal lands are something of a holy grail for crop-based biofuels, especially now, with fears running high that the use of high-quality land to grow feedstocks is cutting into food supplies – or at least raising prices.

Khanna explained this key distinction:

Land cost is a significant part of the cost of producing energy crops. One reason for looking at marginal or less productive cropland is to show that the cost of producing these energy crops is expected to be significantly lower on land that is less productive for growing row crops but could be used productively to grow energy crops.

If you have land that’s currently not being put to any economic use, then you might be able to get high yields from energy crops. Miscanthus doesn’t seem to require very high-quality crop land to begin with, although that is still being studied through field experiments. It’s not affected adversely by low soil quality and nutrient values. So, in southern Illinois, for example, corn yields may be low compared with central Illinois, but Miscanthus could be more productive.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant funded the development of the feedstocks calculator – and if there’s adequate interest, Khanna said her team could try to create a drop-down menu that can be used by farmers in all states.

More information and an in-depth explanation of how the categories and calculations were developed is available on the farmdoc website as a PDF.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.