Illinois Perennial Bioenergy Crop Diversification Project - American Farmland Trust

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Illinois Perennial Bioenergy Crop Diversification Project

Project Goal

In a collaboration between American Farmland Trust and Argonne National Laboratory, this project aims to help farmers transition marginal or unproductive areas of their land to grow perennial bioenergy crops. This effort seeks to repurpose marginal lands using perennial crops to provide additional economic opportunities while boosting farm resiliency. The perennials used in this transition can vary; some examples include switchgrass, miscanthus, native prairie mixes, and shrub willow. The project will involve both community outreach and technical assistance.

What are Perennial Bioenergy Crops?

Perennial Bioenergy Cropping Systems and Production

Perennial crops that are used for bioenergy are harvested for the use of their biomass as fuel, especially for the generation of heat, electricity, and biochar. Wood, agricultural crops and waste, algae, and livestock manure are types of biomass used in bioenergy production. Perennial bioenergy crops can be incorporated into corn and soy production systems as a third crop. There are many benefits to transitioning marginal land to growing perennial bioenergy crops. A few environmental benefits are:  

  • Reduce nutrient loss due to more infiltration and water retention in soil and crops, sequester soil carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  
  • Soil stabilization and erosion prevention due to harvesting methods. Only the tops of the plants are harvested, which leaves the living roots in place. Root systems are typically deeper and stronger than annual crops and helps stabilize and regenerate soil function. 
  • Increased wildlife and soil microbial diversity.  

There are many economic and agronomic benefits to growing these crops as well. Some of which are:  

  • There is a potential to offset the cost of and dependance on traditional fuel types (gas, propane, etc.). 
  • There are emerging markets in renewable bioenergy. Early involvement in these markets may offer farmers a financial benefit due to limited availability of crops.  
  • These crops can grow on marginal lands where cash crop yields are not strong or profitable. This provides an opportunity to create value to an area of the farm that previously was not valuable or profitable.  
  • Hay baling and harvesting equipment can be used to harvest leafy biomass, so there is no need to invest in specialized equipment.  
  • Management practices surrounding these crops increase soil health and long-term productivity potential.  

Shrub Willow as a bioenergy crop planted next to a field of corn.

Collecting Data – Energy Consumption Survey

In efforts to gather more information about Illinois farms, AFT and Argonne National Laboratory are conducting a survey on the energy consumption on Illinois farms. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the diversification and installation of alternative energy sources. This includes renewable power technologies (e.g., wind turbines and solar panels) and organic waste streams (e.g., manure and post-harvest residue) from agricultural activities to create energy through processes like anaerobic digesters for combined heat and power generation, biochar production for soil amendment and heat generation, and renewable natural gas production. The survey aims to better understand farmer engagement and interest with onsite renewable energy production.

Are you a farmer in Illinois? We want to hear from you! Take the survey HERE.

Connecting with Farmers – Listening Sessions and Technical Assistance

Farmer listening sessions are an integral part of this effort. By connecting with farmers to learn what their needs and interests are, individualized technical assistance can be provided. AFT and Argonne National Lab will be conducting a series of listening sessions to gather feedback on their online tool and to learn more about the potential to grow perennial crops for biomass.

Additionally, AFT and Argonne National Lab are offering farming communities the possible integration of perennial bioenergy crops and energy-producing technologies through technical assistance.

Fields of switchgrass produced for bioenergy.

Tools to Help – SUPERBEEST

Argonne National laboratory has developed an online tool called the “Scaling Up PERennial Bioenergy Economics and Ecosystem Services Tool” (SUPERBEEST). This tool is designed to assist users in identifying marginal land based on various economic and environmental parameters, determine ecosystem services that would be realized if marginal land were converted from grain crops to bioenergy crops, and estimate the net economic value of this change. SUPERBEEST can work at any scale, whether it be an individual field or a group of watersheds. It is designed to serve a broad range of decision-makers regarding the adoption of perennial bioenergy crops, from farmers to biorefinery planners, environmental regulators, and researchers.

Snapshot of SUPERBEEST home screen and affiliated data layers used to assess marginal lands.

Additionally, farmer input will help further tool refinement. The current data in the tool consists of general location information and several soil marginalities related to shallow groundwater quality and geology.

Are you a producer in Illinois and interested in participating in one of our listening sessions or receiving technical assistance? Reach out to:

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