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Ag department is awarded a grant for a bioenergy demonstration project

By Jane Ver Steeg

An agricultural research project to be conducted by Dordt College’s agriculture department, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Marshalltown Community College has been awarded $138,000 in grant funding from North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE).

Chris Goedhart

Chris Goedhart

“Bioenergy and Diversity from Sustainable Systems and Crops” was among fifteen proposals awarded full funding by NCR-SARE, out of 127 projects submitted.

The cooperative effort will fund side-by-side field comparisons at the Dordt College Agriculture Stewardship Center and the Midwest Center for Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture of Marshalltown Community College. Each crop site will be planted in replicated blocks with either a continuous-corn system or a three-year “gateway to sustainability” rotation of corn, soybeans, and winter/spring small grain/forage with legume underseeding. Student interns at each school (with faculty assistance) will document the environmental impact, energy, and economics of these systems and communicate results to classmates, farmers, and future farmers (FFA).

The Iowa Energy Center will offer technical expertise to interns and participate in field days and workshops at which farm-scale bioenergy options will be presented. The two college partner sites were chosen to give visibility to the project through field days, accessibility to agriculture students hoping to farm, and public media.

The project is designed to demonstrate a basic cropping system that uses a fraction of the energy that continuously planting corn does with a net energy output that can be essentially the same and at the same time support a diversity of farm enterprises in a sustainable way.

The goal is to bring farmers, scientists, and other community members together to exchange information, acquire skills, and develop solutions for optimizing agricultural economic returns, sustaining environmental quality, and efficiently addressing global and national energy concerns.

In writing the proposal, Derrick Exner of Practical Farmers of Iowa says, “Farmers want and need to know about 1) actions they can take that will make their own farms and communities more energy secure, and 2) how they can participate in bioenergy industries without sacrificing either the farm’s resource base or the range of enterprises that characterize diversified farms.”

This demonstration project will focus on the benefits of sustainable agricultural systems, such as highly positive energy balances and net reduction of atmospheric carbon, to address issues such as global warming and energy independence.

Dr. Chris Goedhart, agriculture department chairperson, said the project will also demonstrate currently available and near-term options like on-farm biodiesel processing, on-farm sorghum processing for ethanol, the efficacy of biofuel byproducts as livestock feeds, and, looking ahead, a variety of cellulosic crops compatible with sustainable farming systems.

While the field trials are at the core of the proposal, energy-related work in process at Dordt College will be incorporated into the educational outreach. Dr. Ethan Brue and engineering students at the college are currently developing farm-scale equipment for processing sweet sorghum and producing ethanol by fermentation/distillation.

Dordt agriculture students will present their research to high school FFA and science classes on issues of agricultural sustainability, environmental quality, and enterprise diversity through the demonstration of integrated cropping systems for the production of bioenergy.