July 11, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman

For the next four years scientists with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture will work with farmers in northeast Kentucky on biomass production using switchgrass, as well as continue their work on hay production in the region.

Changes have taken place that make tobacco, once an important crop in northeastern Kentucky, a less viable income source. As a result, farmers have looked to other crops. Many alternatives have been suggested, but most require high capital investments and have limited market opportunities. Biomass production with switchgrass and similar crops provides a renewable fuel alternative that works well with existing hay production systems and equipment, said Ray Smith, UK forage specialist and principal investigator on the project. In other words, producers can produce biomass using their existing machinery.

Through a grant from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, the Kentucky Forage and Grasslands Council is funding UK’s work. The bulk of the research will be on biomass, as they work to demonstrate the region is capable of producing sustainable and economical biomass crops and at the same time, teaching production techniques to farmers and agents with UK’s Cooperative Extension Service, and developing viable markets for these crops. The hay portion of the project will continue work Smith and Tom Keene, UK hay marketing specialist, have been doing with producers in the area for the past two years on improving hay quality and marketing opportunities. 

“Biomass has huge potential for the future,” Smith said. “Our main focus on the biomass project is to find alternative energy markets for our producers in Kentucky. We are working with 20 farmers within a 60-mile radius of Maysville. We chose Maysville because East Kentucky Power has a cofired plant there that has the capability of burning biomass products.” 

There are numerous emerging options for biomass including electrical generation in cofired units (like the one at East Kentucky Power in Maysville), pellet production for pellet fueled home heaters, and cellulosic ethanol production. The dilemma is that energy companies want to be assured of an adequate supply while forage producers don’t want to grow something until they have a market for it, Smith said. This project is aimed at helping to solve those issues.

The 20 farms will each grow five acres of switchgrass, which Smith said is a proven biomass producer. Switchgrass will grow on poorer soils than typical crops and has lower nitrogen and fertility requirements while still producing high tonnage.

“The 20 farms with five acres will give us a supply of production to work with East Kentucky Power and do work at UK,” Smith said. “It will also give us an impetus to attract companies who are interested in cellulosic ethanol production. A Canadian company is commercializing cellulosic ethanol production and is looking to locate plants in North America. But they want to know there’s guaranteed supply.

“One hundred acres won’t be that much supply, but it will be some initial feed stock,” he said. “By working with 20 farms, however, we will be building up the production expertise in this area of the state through these farmers and county agents in the area. The project is for four years and hopefully by that time there will have been enough success shown that there will be someone ready to buy it.”

UK specialists will also look at a wide range of biomass crops in research trials at Lexington and at Eden Shale Farm. UK Variety Testing Specialist Gene Olson will head up the work. Smith noted a number of universities are involved in biomass research, but this project is somewhat unique in that they are also working with farmers on the production aspect. Not many others are doing that, he added.


Ray Smith, 859-257-3358, Tom Keene, 859-257-3144