Giant Miscanthus Production on Maryland Eastern Shore’s Marginal Land: Grassroots Efforts to Restore Profitable Agriculture

Progress report for ONE21-392

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $25,801.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Maryland
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Dr. Sarah Hirsh
University of Maryland
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to:

1)     Perform research about giant miscanthus growth on marginal land

The field will serve as an important next step to make observations about potential issues and the outlook of this crop on marginal land. Correlations between soil moisture and soil salt content with miscanthus yield will be important for researchers to understand how this crop performs in coastal marginal land. The field will also allow researchers to study miscanthus tolerance to deer. The field-scale (10 acre) planting of miscanthus by our collaborating farmer will allow researchers to study a range of soil conditions and to study deer behavior in a realistic environment.

2)     Foster regionally relevant education about giant miscanthus

The planting will provide a field-scale demonstration of miscanthus for regional farmers to observe. Through field-day and workshop education events the project will educate regional farmers about this crop and facilitate a grassroots effort among farmers to discuss the viability of this crop as an option for marginal land.

Introduction:

In low lying areas on the Eastern Shore of Maryland cropland has been subject to sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion, causing farmers to abandon growing conventional crops (corn, soybean, wheat) on some fields. Affected land will continue to expand over the next century (Boesch et al., 2018). In addition, farmers are abandoning land due to extreme deer pressure from both white-tailed and sika deer. Farmers express interest in growing crops and crop varieties that are deer resistant or not affected by deer herbivory. 

The proposed project investigates growing giant miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus) on marginal land on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There is a need to find crops that grow on marginal land and have a regional market. A needs assessment of farmers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland found that “marketing opportunities for local products” ranked as the highest need in the area of farm management (Behnke et al., 2019). Giant miscanthus is a promising crop for Maryland with a burgeoning market. Furthermore, miscanthus can provide an array of environmental benefits.

Our collaborating farmer has approximately 500 acres of marginal land in Dorchester County, Maryland, which no longer supports rowcrop production due to prolonged periods of flooding, saltwater intrusion and heavy deer pressure. In recent years the field was planted into soybean, but yielded no harvestable crop. As a result, the farmer is interested in the prospects of growing giant miscanthus on this land. However, miscanthus requires a large initial investment of approximately $1200/acre simply to acquire rhizomes and rent specialized planting equipment. Because of the high upfront costs and the lack of field-scale trials of miscanthus on marginal land, farmers are not able to risk planting miscanthus on marginal land. While miscanthus is one of the most promising perennial herbaceous industrial crops worldwide, cultivation is lacking due to high initial costs and low biomass potential during the crop establishment period (von Cossel et al., 2019).  A 10 acre field that will serve as both a demonstration and research plot will be planted by our collaborating farmer to investigate the viability of giant miscanthus on marginal land. Giant miscanthus is a perennial crop (maintaining maximum biomass for up to 15 years) and requires minimal inputs after establishment (Kalmbach et al., 2020).

Studies gathering data on the tolerance of alternative crops to environmental stressors are often performed in small plots or pots. This project is unique as we propose miscanthus be planted on a 10 acre field that is representative of the typical marginal land in this region, posing multiple environmental stressors (salt, flooding, and deer pressure) and being managed with commercial scale equipment by an experienced farmer. In addition, this field-scale trial will serve as a demonstration site for educational events. We propose holding educational workshops to discuss the agronomy and economics of miscanthus as well as a facilitated roundtable meeting of local farmers to discuss the efficacy of giant miscanthus as a viable crop for marginal land in the region.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

1)     Perform research about giant miscanthus growth on marginal land

The collaborating farmer has been in contact with the giant miscanthus rhizome supplier company (AgroTech) as well as with a neighboring farmer who grows giant miscanthus on prime land at a commercial scale. The collaborating farmer will coordinate with AgroTech and the local neighboring farmer to plant and establish the miscanthus on two small fields (total of approximately 10 acres). This planting will be done according to best management practices provided by AgroTech, the company that provides the rhizomes, and the University of Maryland recommendations (Kalmbach et al., 2020). Giant miscanthus is planted in either early spring or fall according to rhizome availability and field-conditions, which varies by weather and other factors both on the Eastern Shore and in North Carolina where the rhizomes are grown.

We will divide the field using GPS technology into a grid with 0.5 acre subdivisions (Figure 2). In order to characterize field conditions we will take soil samples in each 0.5 acre subdivision (sample of 20 composite cores per subdivision). We will run complete soil analyses, which include all of the basic measurements (pH, nutrients, CEC, etc.) as well as total salts, salinity, and nitrogen. We will also monitor soil moisture continuously from planting through the first year of growth using Watermark soil moisture sensors and datalogging equipment. We will measure soil moisture at 2”, 6”, 12”, and 18” soil depths at four points along a straight transect running diagonal across the field (Figure 2). In order to assess deer pressure on giant miscanthus, we will walk down four miscanthus rows at least three times during the growing season and record the number of leaves that are grazed by deer. We will also set-up two wildlife cameras and count the number of deer sightings. We will make observations of insect pest pressure along the same four miscanthus rows.

We will make detailed observations and measurements in 20 1 m2 quadrats (Figure 2). These 20 quadrats will be located in each of the 20 0.5 acre subdivisions. The following observations and measurements will be taken in the quadrats:

  • soil samples to evaluate salt content, fertility, etc
  • rhizome count to determine stand establishment
  • observations of miscanthus growth
  • heights of miscanthus growth at least two times throughout season
  • total biomass of miscanthus prior to dry down

We will perform a regression analysis to correlate miscanthus yield versus salt content, total salts, nutrient content, and other factors. We will perform a multivariate analysis to determine which soil factors most influence miscanthus yield. In addition, the collaborating farmer will provide miscanthus yield data from the whole field at the end of the season.

Through interviews with the collaborating farmer, we will document experiences and challenges involved with planting miscanthus on marginal land.

Figure 2. Schematic of 0.5 acre field subdivisions, transect location, and 1 m2 quadrat example location.

2)     Foster regionally relevant education about giant miscanthus

We will hold a series of five educational programs introducing giant miscanthus and facilitating farmer discussion. Topics will include:

1)     Introduction to giant miscanthus and basics of production; Discussion of AgroTech partnership and potential markets (Virtual webinar)

2)     Experience growing giant miscanthus on marginal land and results of research study (Virtual webinar)

3)     Crop budget and economic analysis (Virtual webinar)

4)     Tour of miscanthus growing on marginal land (In-person field-day)

5)     Facilitated roundtable farmer discussion of whether miscanthus is a viable crop on marginal land in the region (grassroots efforts to garner grower interest and support and get ideas/engage). Example topics of discussion include, "What support would farmers need to make this crop more viable?", and "How does miscanthus compare with other options such as conservation easements or other crops?" (In-person meeting)

Research results and discussion:

As of January 2022, we have divided the study field using GPS technology into a grid with 0.5 acre subdivisions. In order to characterize field conditions we took soil samples in each 0.5 acre subdivision (sample of 20 composite cores per subdivision). We ran complete soil analyses, which include all of the basic measurements (pH, nutrients, CEC, etc.) as well as total salts, salinity, and nitrogen. 

We anticipate that our cooperating farmer will plant the giant miscanthus in early spring 2022, as planned.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We will share the results of the project in our proposed educational programs. One of the virtual programs will be focused on the research results and farmer experiences of growing giant miscanthus on marginal land. In addition, we will hold a field-day tour of the giant miscanthus trial field. The research will also be discussed as part of the roundtable farmer discussion of whether miscanthus is a viable crop on marginal land in the region. In addition to these in-person and virtual educational programs geared towards Eastern Shore farmers, we will publish reports of the research in state-wide Extension newsletters such as University of Maryland Agronomy News. First year project results will also be presented at the 2023 National Association of County Agriculture Agents (NACAA) professional conference. A factsheet and final report of the project will be written that includes:

  • Results of miscanthus establishment, growth and biomass yield on marginal land
  • Correlations between site characteristics (e.g., salt content, soil nutrient content) and miscanthus yield
  • Results of deer presence and herbivory on miscanthus
  • Collaborating farmer experiences and potential ways to improve miscanthus management
  • Take-aways from the farmer roundtable discussion
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.