Pesotum farmer meets Obama as part of roundtable energy discussion

When the president of the United States walks into a room and he moves to shake your hand, "you think you'll say something intelligent, but it doesn't always work that way," laughed farmer Eric Rund, who said he was surprised how tall Barack Obama is and, "no matter what your politics," it is something else when you meet the president in person.

After some small talk, Rund said he did manage to invite President Obama to his Pesotum farm, where Rund grows several test plots of miscanthus, a crop that can be converted to biofuel.

"He said he would love that," Rund said.

The farmer, long a champion of biofuels, particularly ones made from biomass crops like the perennial grass miscanthus, participated in a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., last week about what some people are doing to boost the economies of rural communities around the country.

In addition to Rund and President Obama, the White House Rural Champions of Change roundtable included Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Melody Barnes, the president's domestic policy adviser; and 17 other people from around the U.S., as well as other USDA and White House staff.

The visitors were invited to talk about the projects in their communities and share their ideas on how to strengthen rural communities and promote economic growth.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture release, the White House Champions of Change is an initiative to recognize "ordinary" Americans for innovation and education. The roundtables are a way to spotlight some of the projects across the country.

Rund, a farmer and chief executive officer of Green Flame Energy, is working to develop biomass markets.

"What we've been working on most recently is how farmers can grow biomass, how to utilize it locally or not so locally," he said.

While federal and private money has gone to funding research on how to convert biomass crops like miscanthus or switchgrass into biofuels, not a lot of money has been spent on how to establish the crops in fields, Rund said.

While in Washington, Rund took time to visit the USDA's Farm Service Agency as well as Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Mark Kirk's offices to talk about government funding of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.

He and a group of over a dozen farmers with about 16,000 acres, from Indiana to the Mississippi River, applied for funding for a BCAP project that would encourage farmers in the project area to grow biomass crops.

The group, Prairie State Biomass, proposed the farmers could receive financial assistance from the Farm Service Agency much as they receive payments to enroll their marginal crop land into the Conservation Reserve Program.

Members of the Prairie State Biomass Producers Association proposed that farmers who signed on to the program could receive payments for up to 75 percent of the establishment costs for perennial biomass crops as well as land payments for five years.

"It would really be a boost to anyone trying to grow biomass. It would take some of the risk away," he said.

Establishing perennial biomass crops, especially miscanthus, which is sterile, is expensive, he said. Farmers must dig up the rhizomes with special equipment and transplant them.

"The good thing is (miscanthus) is not invasive, and unlike corn, it does not take nutrients from the soil," he said. That means it could be grown in marginal farmland.

Earlier this summer, Vilsack announced the establishment of additional BCAP project areas, but the Prairie State Biomass project was not included.

While in Washington, Rund spoke with Farm Service Agency officials about their application and how to re-apply.

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