Biofuel crop in need of insurance protection, says University professor

From the tropical regions of Africa and Asia, a high-energy grass has found its home in America’s biofuel research plots.

But miscanthus, the higher-yielding alternative to corn ethanol, faces a barrier: crop insurance.

Jody Endres, professor in environmental, natural resources and energy law, said while the USDA and other government agencies employ a variety of methods to encourage the growing of miscanthus for biofuel production, there is no crop insurance program for miscanthus like there is for commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

“Farmers are less likely to plant it if they don’t have the same type of insurance as they would have to plant corn or soybeans,” Endres said.

Because miscanthus farmers are limited, Endres is co-leading a nationwide group with the University of Illinois and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to guide and communicate with farmers about the market.

One local farmer, Eric Rund, has been growing miscanthus on his farm in Villa Grove for five years.

“Being a miscanthus farmer is kind of lonely — there aren’t many of us,” Rund said.

Rund planted the miscanthus with the idea he would be selling it for cellulosic ethanol production. However, because of the slow development of this industry, he had to create his own market for miscanthus in Champaign County, selling the crop for livestock bedding.

“We know how to make corn ethanol because we’ve been making whiskey for how many years?” Rund said. “That’s basically it, you just ferment it. We don’t have that history of making fuel from biomass. It’s going to take a little time.”

He said during that time, it would be helpful to receive initial government support for biofuel production.

“We need a program that can be described as ‘seed money’ to help solve the problem of converting cellulose to other forms of fuel efficiently and subsides those initial efforts until they get on their feet,” Rund said.

He emphasized the importance of exploring options other than corn ethanol because last year about 40 percent of corn was used for fuel.

“You go much further than that and you start hurting the food supply,” Rund said.

Endres said there were two reasons crop insurance was not offered. The first is due to strong lobbying against a biomass-based fuel system by entities like the American Petroleum Institute and the United States Cattlemen’s Association.

“Whenever you plant a bioenergy crop, it competes for land with other crops, which theoretically raises prices,” Endres said. “Those folks have been very active in trying to get policies such as the renewable fuel standard, which is the mandatory blending law for blending those fuels into conventional gasoline, repealed.”

Endres said in her opinion, this was all done to protect the interests of various industries, such as the oil industry and food industry, and “sullied” the otherwise good name of bioenergy in the marketplace and in government policy.

She said the second reason for the lack of crop insurance was that there is no organized biomass-based group to inform farmers of how to grow it and how to create markets. Instead of waiting for this to happen, Endres’ group has been taking steps to create that space.

“We’re looking at how to make the industry sustainable economically, as well as environmentally and socially,” Endres said. “Part of that group is going to be developing value proposition for planting, growing and using biomass based crops.”

Dr. Stephen Long, endowed professor in the plant biology and crop science department, has been working on miscanthus research for about 30 years and said one of the benefits it holds over corn is it can survive in harsh climates.

Long said before miscanthus can be put into large scale production, investments must be made into large scale processing plants.

“Our analysis suggests, if you have a large operation in one location in the country, you could transport it hundreds of miles,” Long said. “But until we see large scale processing plants, there isn’t going to be large scale demand.”

Claire can be reached at [email protected]