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Looking to miscanthus giganteus

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Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

Editor's Note: This is the third in a four-part series this week on the renewable fuel industry. Tomorrow, we complete the series with a look at biodiesel.

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LUVERNE -- Amid a family strawberry patch and rows of garden vegetables stand clumps of hardy grass that, come fall, will reach about 10 to 12 feet tall.

Most people likely see the clumps for what they are -- plantings of a simple ornamental grass. When Loren Forrest looks at the clumps, however, he sees a renewable resource.

"What we're doing here is fighting the war in Iraq," he said, gesturing to the wide, green strips of grass blowing gently in the afternoon breeze. "There's one reason we're over there -- it's oil."

With Midwestern corn crops already being converted to ethanol, and soybean fields harvested for the production of bio-diesel, Loren knows there are ways to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil. But he isn't content with growing corn and soybeans as renewable fuel alternatives. There have to be other crops that can be used -- crops than can produce just as much, if not more, fuel per acre than corn or soybeans.

Some may label Loren as a bit quirky, but he sees himself as an innovator. That's why he is nurturing 392 mounds of miscanthus giganteus in slightly sloping soil on land just west of Luverne.

Loren, along with Illinois farmer John Caveny, received a grant from Xcel Energy two years ago to study miscanthus and the plant's potential to produce biomass and alternative energy. Xcel's hope was that the plant could be used to help produce electricity.

While that may be true, Loren believes there will be more profitability in producing fuel from the ornamental grass. He will know for sure come fall, when his miscanthus crop is harvested and sent to a lab in Mississippi. There, the levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen in the plants will be identified.

"(The testing) determines what can be made," said Loren's son, Russell, who helps in the family-owned business, Rural Energy Marketing.

Trial and error

Initial studies have shown one acre of miscanthus can produce an estimated 3,000 gallons of ethanol, a clean-burning biofuel blended with gasoline. By comparison, corn -- the kernels of which have been used in ethanol production for more than a decade -- produces between 400 to 500 gallons of ethanol per acre.

Financially speaking, Loren said an acre of miscanthus will yield about $1,500 in ethanol, whereas an acre of corn will yield approximately $750.

"Now, why does anyone want to plant corn and beans?" he asked.

For one, corn and soybeans grow from seeds planted in the spring. Miscanthus must be propagated because the seeds it produces are sterile.

To increase his population of miscanthus, Loren has to divide larger plants at the root and replant them so that new shoots can grow. The work is time-consuming and back-breaking as the Forrests use a shovel and axe to cut through the woody base of the plant.

Another reason farmers won't likely rush to planting miscanthus is that there isn't technology available in the United States to either plant or harvest the grass. Loren said a man in England has a patent on a miscanthus planter, a device he likened to the potato digger that America's spud growers use.

While miscanthus has its drawbacks, Loren said once the initial planting is done, there isn't any plant maintenance until harvest -- an aspect he likes. So far, his miscanthus has thrived this spring, even with the heavy rains earlier in the season. Time will tell, however, how the plants react to drought.

"They're kind of water-loving things," Russell said of the results they've seen so far.

In the two years since their first miscanthus crop was planted, the Forrests have learned a few things. For instance, the first winter, the plants should be under a shelter of some sort. The Forrests did a combination of both covered and uncovered plants two years ago, and none of the uncovered plants survived.

Before the second winter, the Forrests added about 1,000 pounds per acre of phosphorus, calcium amendment and mulch to the soil -- a combination that proved successful in outdoor over-wintering for close to 90 percent of the miscanthus plants.

As for weed treatment, Loren said 2,4-D has worked to keep the broadleaf weeds away, and Pursuit, Lumax and Treflan can be used to control other weed species. To help promote plant growth, Loren said they've determined that the addition of 40 pounds of nitrogen (urea) to the soil each spring is ample for the miscanthus.

Once miscanthus is harvested -- a task that can be done in late fall or early spring before the new shoots begin to appear -- the dried, woody crop is collected in round bales. The bales then go through a processing system for conversion into ethanol.

Making comparisons

Loren said the work he and Caveny are doing with miscanthus isn't being replicated by university or research facilities in the country. The reason, he said, is because the federal government is touting switchgrass instead. That's where the research dollars are being offered.

For his own peace of mind, Loren has established five 10- by 10-foot plots alongside his garden -- two containing switchgrass, one of miscanthus and one each of corn and soybeans. Those are his test plots to see which crop will perform the best in the production of renewable fuel.

At the same time, Loren has plots comparing miscanthus plants from different parts of the country, including Oregon, Illinois, Nebraska and two locations in Minnesota.

"I think the (University of Minnesota) plants will be the hardiest of the bunch," Loren said of his growing miscanthus.

Identifying which originations of miscanthus work best in Minnesota's climate is just one piece of the puzzle. If the plant is proven as a good source for ethanol, more work will be needed.

Loren is also conducting studies on plant spacing -- information that will be used to help determine planting, cultivation and harvesting methods.

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