CHAMPAIGN – An area farmer who has been growing miscanthus for three years said the crop isn't quite as profitable as corn, but it can be significantly more profitable than soybeans.
But, in order for miscanthus to become a viable crop, ethanol plants that burn the product need to build locally to establish a market for it.
Eric Rund, a Pesotum farmer who has invested in a corn ethanol plant in the U.S. as well as farmland in Brazil, was the keynote speaker at the first AgriEnergy conference Thursday at Parkland College.
The conference was sponsored by the Champaign County Farm Bureau.
"We're collecting solar energy when we grow stuff to make energy," Rund said.
Rund cited a study by the Eastern Illinois Farm Business Management Association comparing typical profit margins for corn, soybeans and miscanthus, a perennial grass used for energy production.
According to the study, a typical acre of Illinois corn provides $1,045 of income and $804 of expenses, for a net profit of $241 per acre.
A typical acre of Illinois soybeans brings in $666 of income and $579 of expenses, for a net profit of $87 per acre.
Miscanthus is in between, Rund said. An acre of miscanthus, at full production, generates $825 of income and $626 of expenses, for a net profit of $199 per acre.
"The plant of choice is miscanthus because it is the most profitable if you are growing it for biofuel," Rund said.
The advantage of supplementing corn and soybeans with miscanthus, according to Rund, is that its longer growing season allows farmers to harvest the grass long after the corn and soybean harvests have been completed, a time when farmers typically have more time to do harvesting work.
"Miscanthus doesn't ripen like corn does or beans do," Rund said. "It grows until it freezes, and the harvest is from Dec. 1 through the start of spring.
"It's a time when you're not busy, and it fits right in for crop farmers in Illinois," he said. "But you'll have to turn the cab heater on for your tractor."
The biggest current obstacle to growing miscanthus, according to Rund, is that there is no local market for the crop.
"And nobody is going to build a plant to use miscanthus because it doesn't have enough of a source," he said.
Rund said it may take a combination of farmers growing miscanthus and the construction of a nearby plant that can convert miscanthus into energy before it becomes a viable commercial crop.
Rund said farmland currently used for corn or soybeans wouldn't need to be taken out of production if Conservation Reserve Program farmland were used for miscanthus, citing Department of Agriculture records that show there are 10,000 acres of CRP land in Champaign County.
"If you put four counties together with that much CRP, you could build a 50 million-gallon ethanol plant where they meet and not take 1 acre of corn or soybeans out of production," Rund said.