Indigenous switch grass could be a boon to local economy
EDITOR'S NOTE: When U.S. Rep. Jim E. Clyburn ran for re-election in the fall, he said improving the Interstate 95 corridor was his obsession. 'That is one of the major arteries in our country, and to have the stretch in South Carolina the poorest, least educated, most unhealthy communities in our state, that's an abomination,' he said. The re-election of Clyburn and election of Barack Obama provides new hope. This is the second in a four-part series about changes under way along the I-95 corridor.
FLORENCE — If oil is black gold, then Dr. James Frederick is one of many trying to spin straw into a new kind of gold.
Frederick is an agronomist with Clemson's Pee Dee Research and Education Center, located on farmland halfway between Florence and Darlington.
He has watched the steady demise of tobacco and cotton here during the past 15 years, and he has seen the harm that has dealt rural towns such as Lake City, Mullins and Marion, where not only farmers but equipment and fertilizer dealers, seed merchants and warehouses have taken a hit.
"That's pretty much what these whole towns were centered on," Frederick said. "They're now drying up because of it."
But a solution might be what's growing on some 40 acres outside his window.
Switch grass — a native plant which lives about 15 years and grows up to nine feet tall — shows a lot of promise as a new biofuel that would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. As that unfolds, the crop also could give new hope to struggling South Carolina farmers along Interstate 95.
The plant appears to be thriving in its second year. Last week, some sections already had been harvested and raked into neat rows.
Other acres still had switch grass at chest height or higher, a positive sign that the crop survived the extremely dry months of May and June — a period that wiped out a corn crop nearby.
"It put our switch grass to the true test," he said. "You're only a week away from drought around here."
"We'll always look for something we can produce better than the Midwest," Frederick added. "When it comes to corn and beans, we lose."
Not only is switch grass hardy, but it can be grown by small-scale farmers and big-scale farmers. Unlike algae, which also has potential as a biofuel, farmers don't need to create ponds on their land. Unlike sweet potatoes, which also might have promise, switch grass can be stored for months, not just weeks. It also requires relatively little fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides.
All that bodes well because while most any plant can be converted into fuel, biofuel makes sense only if farmers and refineries can make money from it.
Some of the switch grass grown here is being shipped to labs across South Carolina. Karl Kelly, director of corporate operations at the Clemson Restoration Institute in North Charleston, said researchers are working on a way to process switch grass into ethanol at or below what it costs to produce ethanol from corn. "Is it feasible? We think it absolutely is," he said.
Kelly also is optimistic about the future of farming as more companies and nations look to grow their own energy. "About 30 percent of our economy is based on agriculture," he said. "We have an opportunity to infuse new money into communities and greatly impact the rural communities."
The opportunity for switch grass might not even have to wait until a perfect ethanol recipe is hammered out.
One Charleston-based company, Carolina-Pacific LLC, has been trying to strike deals with farmers to grow switch grass, which the company intends to sell to European utilities as an alternative to coal.
While much of the talk about switch grass's promise hinges on how it can be converted to ethanol, it's highly unlikely such a refinery will be built until there are many thousands of acres of switch grass growing in nearby fields, said John B. Kern, chairman and chief executive officer of Carolina-Pacific LLC.
"The only way to get the farming economy from here to there is to find a ready market for this stuff in the interim," he said. "We are extremely well positioned to do just that because of our access to shipping lanes."
But farmers have been reluctant to sign on so far. Kern hopes that will change.
"Imagine the economic impact if we had 100,000 acres and each acre yielded six tons of switch grass, which is what Dr. Frederick said it would do, and you're paying the farmer $60 a ton," Kern said. That's $360 an acre — above the yield for soybeans or corn.
"If you've got 100,000 acres, you've got $36 million of farm income. That would have a major impact year in and year out on that I-95 corridor. That income would be spread around all those little communities that are so desperate."
U.S. House Majority Whip Jim E. Clyburn has visited the Clemson center twice during the past year and plans to return again next year.
"Until I started working on this project, I didn't know that switch grass was indigenous to South Carolina," he said, adding that Minnesota and South Dakota also are among the many states looking into the plant. "Why aren't we one of the leading states in the production of ethanol from switch grass?"
Clyburn said he will consider changing the tax codes to encourage such a refinery here. "We've got to make it attractive for people to take the risk," he said.
Experts don't think biofuels alone can replace the nation's dependence on foreign oil, but most expect they will be part of a solution along with nuclear, wind and solar power — and energy conservation.
And switch grass isn't the sole potential biofuel. Scientists also are looking at residue from corn stalks, fast-growing trees and wood waste and other sources.
"Everybody wants an answer right now," Frederick said. "Petroleum people had decades and decades to get to where they are right now, but switch grass does look pretty good in terms of return."
Meanwhile, he and others will continue to research how well the grass can be grown in the sandy soils and dry conditions along South Carolina's inner coastal plain, east and west of Interstate 95.
Their list of questions include: What is the best time to harvest it? How many times can you harvest it? What's the bare minimum of fertilizer to put on it? And what are the best soil types for it?
So far, two farmers in Marlboro County have taken the plunge and planted about 150 acres of switch grass, mostly because they plan to sell the seeds, said Vic Bethea, a Clemson Extension agent.
The grass thrived to the point where Bethea said he and the farmers were shocked by how quickly it grew to head-high levels, but time will tell how quickly other farmers follow suit.
"We think it's going to take off," he said.