Farmers in 21 Tennessee counties hope to figure out how to grow, harvest and market crops, including switchgrass, for bioenergy.

They're doing it through an unusual year-old program called the 25Farmer Network, funded through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. This spring, farmers in six locations each planted a 5-acre plot of two new switchgrass varieties considered the first developed for bioenergy. The network covers their costs while they learn about a crop's agronomic and marketing potential.

One such farmer is Tony Brannon, who runs the family farm near Puryear, TN, and is dean of the School of Agriculture at Murray State University, just 11 miles north in Murray, KY. Brannon has experimented with switchgrass for several years and is excited about the new varieties.

“We certainly wanted to look at those varieties' potential for this particular area and, with my background in education, I always want to try something that might be improved,” he says.

The varieties, EG 1101 and EG 1102, are from Ceres, Inc., sold under the Blade Energy Crops brand name. Farmers are looking at planting methods, pest control, harvesting options and ways to transport and market switchgrass, determined by the U.S. Department of Energy as having the most promise in helping to reduce this country's dependence on foreign oil.

“It's a very ugly crop the first year,” Brannon says. “You don't want to spray it because you'll stress it. If you fertilize the grass, it just makes the weeds grow that much more. So you just have to walk away from it the first year and come back the second year and see what you have.”

EG 1102 got off to a better start than EG 1101, but the varieties looked about the same in July, Brannon says. He expects annual yields of 6-8 tons/acre and hopes the work will lead to a processing plant in the area.

“Our goal is to go from the farm to the factory with a crop,” says Hillary Spain, 25Farmer Network coordinator. “At the farm level, I work directly with farmers, going through the agronomic details from planting to harvest.”

Spain held three training sessions, talked with growers about new alternative crops, what the barriers may be to producing those crops and how they may tackle the “new crop industry.”

Based partly on farmers' capabilities and what they had experience growing, switchgrass was one of three crops chosen.

“We're trying to overcome barriers so that, when the market potential is there, we will be ready as a region that has already tested these crops. We can determine what's going to work best and scale up those acres helping the market develop,” she says.

The other two crops being explored in Tennessee are sunflowers and sweet sorghum. Spain hopes that participating farmers will be willing to make a couple different business plans for sunflowers, including a possible oilseed crushing facility. Sweet sorghum will be grown and examined for ethanol production.

The Memphis Bioworks Foundation AgBio Initiative coordinates the 25Farmer Network and hopes to expand it to Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi. The five states make up a program called the Regional Strategy for Biobased Products in the Mississippi Delta. That program is doing a full-scale analysis of various crops that can move from farm to factory.

Brannon hopes his university will help come up with a briquette or pellet processing plant that will make switchgrass, now harvested in big round bales in his area, easier to transport.

Currently, however, few markets are available for switchgrass. Brannon may end up feeding his to his 50-head beef herd this year. “We have some excellent forage when cut at the proper stage,” he points out.

“The only limiting factor is how much money you want to put into fertilizer. If you fertilize, it'll grow like crazy and probably make two cuttings a year for forage.”

The farmer-ag school dean is also exploring a triple-crop switchgrass system through other research at Murray State on an earlier-planted plot of Alamo, a conventional switchgrass variety.

“I think it's fully feasible and attainable to get a triple crop,” he says. “In our locale, we can cut it for forage about the first of June; it's about 40” in height and can make about 2.5-3 tons/acre. Then we can fertilize it, let it grow back and harvest the Alamo seed in late September-early October. After that, we can harvest the biomass in November, when you get about another 3 tons.”