By STEVE BINDER
CHESTER, Ill. — Jim Davis doesn’t have a large farm in southwestern Illinois, but he’s become more interested recently in planting energy crops.
“I think down the road it would be helpful to have something other than what I’ve been doing, which is mainly corn and beans,” he said. “The market for biomass can only get stronger, as far as I see, and it seems to make sense to put some of my acreage into fuel crops because I think expenses will be lower.”
Most of Davis’ 240 acres sits near the nutrient-rich Mississippi River bottom, but part of his land has been set aside for years. He calls it scrub land, but he’s now thinking of using part of that area for some type of energy crop.
Davis recently was told about a new calculator developed by University of Illinois economist Madhu Khanna, and after plugging in some of his own numbers, Davis came away thinking he would make some extra money – especially because the land he’s eyeing is not in use now.
Khanna called the new calculator a prototype, but one she hopes the U of I can expand to include specific land prices, growing conditions, input prices and other specific geographic data so the calculator can apply to most states. Released last month, the online calculator includes specific data for Michigan, Illinois and Oklahoma.
“This prototype calculator has three different types of growing regions, but we hope to at some time soon to broaden it to include nearly every state,” Khanna said.
To access the feedstock cost and profitability calculator online, go to http://miscanthus.ebi.berkeley.edu/Biofuel
Khanna said the project was funded in part through a $400,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.
“We’ve been doing calculations on what it would cost to produce energy crops in Illinois and other states for quite some time, and we realized that it could be useful to people who want to be able to calculate what these costs would be on their own farm,” she explained. “We wanted to create a calculator so farmers would be able to make their own assessment.”
The economist said the university conducted a survey earlier this year that showed, among Illinois farmers, about half are considering planting significant acreage of energy crops within the next five years.
“Many of them already said they were experimenting with them. So far we’ve had a pretty good response to the people who have tried the calculator,” Khanna said. “It’s an information dissemination tool. The calculator allows farmers to put in their own parameters.
“They can customize the costs based on what their current farming operation looks like, what their current returns are on the land that they are thinking about converting and learn what it would cost to grow an energy crop on it instead. They can decide at what price it might be feasible for them to produce an energy crop. What is the minimum price they would need in order to make it worthwhile?
“Unlike corn and soybeans, where we’ve had years of experience and people have developed recommended, standardized application rates and planting techniques, these bioenergy crops are still very experimental,” she continued. “We’re still figuring out what the optimum rate of nitrogen application should be, the timing for harvest and so on.
“This is based on a representative set of assumptions, using our best knowledge to date.”