A Soggy Solution
Marginal lands are not necessarily areas where it is difficult to grow crops. Shibu Jose, a professor at the University of Missouri and director of the university’s Center for Agroforestry, estimates there is nearly 116 million acres of marginal land along corridors of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. “We do have perhaps the nation’s most productive agricultural land in this corridor, but the flood plain also has some of the most sensitive land in the country,” Jose says. “We call it a flood plain for a reason. They get flooded frequently. The land is marginal in the sense that it is frequently flooded and has a high potential for erosion when you do row cropping.”
Owners of these lands generally plant row crops, such as corn or soybeans. This means the soil is disturbed at least once a year. In the event of a flood, soil from the disturbed land is more easily eroded, impacting the quality of the land and river water. Jose is proposing that this vulnerable land be used to produce biomass feedstocks, such as switchgrass, miscanthus, cottonwood or willow. He says the cultivation of these crops is less risky, as the land rarely has to be disturbed for replanting. The biomass crops are also much more tolerant of flooding conditions than traditional row crops, which means that the farming community will be less vulnerable to losing their crops.
Jose is currently working to establish a consortium of stakeholders along the corridor. He is working to get the entire supply chain involved, from land owners producing the biomass, to the refiners who are processing that biomass into fuel, and the consumers who use it. “When we looked at this region, we could not find a lot of effort [being put] into bringing key players to the table to talk about issues related to the biobased economy,” Jose says. “If we can work together, we can make this bioeconomy happen faster.”