Summary

In the years ahead, U.S. and global markets will demand far more from our farms and forests than ever before. American farmers and foresters will need to produce a lot more food, feed, fuel, and fiber, while at the same time helping to restore the health of our rivers, lakes, and fisheries, improve wildlife habitat and biological diversity, and increase the amount of carbon stored in plants and soils. Extreme weather events and a changing climate will likely make these challenges even more difficult. Both producers and consumers will have to adapt and innovate as never before.

The question before Congress now is: Will the next Farm Bill help develop and assure the nation’s capacity to meet these difficult challenges in the years ahead?

On March 26, 2012, a panel of agricultural experts and innovators discussed the role that perennial biomass energy crops can play in addressing some of these challenges as part of multi-functional agricultural systems. Speakers addressed questions such as:

Can perennial biomass crops help reduce nutrient pollution, conserve soil and water, and enhance wildlife habitat AND provide new sources of revenue for producers, jobs, and a new source of domestic, renewable energy for the nation?
What kinds of perennial biomass projects are already underway?
How can the Farm Bill encourage the development of sustainable, multi-functional agricultural systems with perennial biomass crops that enhance economic, energy, and environmental outcomes?

Highlights:

  • Perennial biomass crops can help reduce nutrient pollution, conserve soil and water, and enhance wildlife habitat, AND provide a new source of domestically-produced, renewable energy, jobs, and economic development.
  • Continuing soil erosion from row crop production is a threat to future food security. Soil productivity is declining over time due to erosion. This is reducing U.S. agriculture’s capacity to meet the nutritional needs of a growing global population.
  • With the increasing frequency of heavy rain events (with a changing climate), substantial soil erosion is occurring - even in fields where no-till is practiced.
  • Nutrient pollution from conventional row crop agriculture - through both surface and ground water - is also harming the nation’s water quality, aquatic ecosystems, and fisheries, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Voluntary USDA conservation programs have helped a lot, but much more is needed to protect and restore soils and water quality, to meet future social and environmental needs, and to adapt to the effects of a changing climate in the decades ahead.
  • Using deep-rooted, perennial, biomass polycultures on marginally productive lands and as watershed buffers around row crops can dramatically reduce soil erosion and nutrient pollution and increase wildlife habitat and biological diversity.
  • Biomass energy crops can also provide an additional revenue stream for producers in areas where bioenergy markets have developed.
  • Farmer members of the Show Me Energy Cooperative in Missouri has planted thousands of acres of marginal land with a carefully selected mix of biomass energy crops. These crops provide farmers with a new source of income, create needed local jobs, provide a new source of domestically-produced renewable energy and other valuable co-products, protect the soil and water quality, and provide wildlife habitat.
  • Today, the densified biomass pellets that the Coop produces are sold and used for biomass power and heating. In the future, as the technology is developed, the biomass may be used to produce drop-in, advanced, cellulosic biofuels.
  • The USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) was critical to encouraging farmers to plant these new crops.
  • Similar, but smaller scale pilot projects are getting under way in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, and Maryland.
  • The biomass is often used locally for heating schools, homes, and farm buildings to replace more expensive propane, oil, or electric heat.
  • Small U.S. manufacturers often supply the equipment needed to collect, harvest, process and convert the biomass to energy. This in turn creates more jobs and economic development.
  • The USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) need to be sustained, strengthened, modified, and adapted to encourage expanded development of local biomass production for energy in the context of advancing more environmentally sustainable, multi-functional agricultural systems.