Bioenergy and Diversity from Sustainable Systems and Crops

2008 Annual Report for LNC08-293

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2008: $138,638.35
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Sarah Carlson
Practical Farmers of Iowa
Dr. Rick Exner
Practical Farmers of iowa

Bioenergy and Diversity from Sustainable Systems and Crops


The project will bring sustainable agriculture further into the public discussion of energy options by demonstrating a basic, practical cropping system that uses a fraction of the energy inputs as continuous corn and provides a net energy output that can be essentially the same while also supporting a diversity of farm enterprises.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Farmers, future farmers, and other students: familiar with techniques and technologies now and near-term to increase energy independence. Farmers, future farmers, other students, and others with interest in agriculture: understand the connection between sustainable energy and sustainable agriculture.

The first months of this project provided three learning opportunities consistent with this short-term objective. In addition, the two collaborating colleges made good progress setting up the cropping systems comparison that is core to the project. Results of this cropping systems comparison will begin to emerge in 2009.


Farmers and others: make informed choices that sustain the environment and are profitable in light of energy costs and their effects on agriculture commodity prices. Young people enter farming and other agriculture careers knowing how sustainable systems can support both farmers and global energy and environmental priorities.


Project participants made progress on the two complementary components of the project:
1) the cropping systems trials; and
2) educational events to demonstrate farmer-friendly energy practices and technologies.

Dordt College established plots and a red clover seeding into which 2009 corn will rotate. Ellsworth Community College identified a site for the cropping systems comparison on the college’s new Agriculture & Renewable Energy Center. Both schools have identified a student intern for project year one; interns will develop and research topics related to the cropping systems comparison.

An important component of the project is the demonstration of practices and farm-scale energy technologies that producers can use to increase their energy independence or reduce the farm’s energy footprint. To that end, three farm workshops or field days were held in late 2008:
1) Wisconsin biodiesel expert Kim Odden demonstrated fuel production directly from oilseeds and described the economics at a northeast Iowa field day organized by PFI members Gary Laydon and Pat Mennenga. Oilseeds are an inevitable part of on-farm biodiesel, since the limited supply of fry oil has been largely spoken for. The relative merits of the major oilseed crops has changed drastically in the six months since the workshop due to falling energy costs and the declining economy. A handout with pictures is attached in this report or available online at:

2) Dordt College engineer Ethan Brue demonstrated a farm-scale distillation column and sweet sorghum that could be a feedstock for ethanol. Ethanol from sorghum, unlike ethanol from grain, requires no fermentation stage; additionally, the great weight and bulk of the sorghum stalks make on-farm processing of the crop the natural choice. Small-scale distillation is one of the critical pieces of the puzzle to make sorghum energy practical on the farm.

3) In south-central Iowa, John and Jean Sellers hosted a field day on cellulosic energy from switchgrass. John was a founder of the Chariton Valley Switchgrass Biomass Project. In attendance at the field day were agency representatives who discussed how to coordinate to make it easier for farmers to transition cool-season CRP plantings to warm-season energy crops like switchgrass.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The project is setting the stage for an educational effort through the two participating colleges and their cropping systems documentation. This information will begin to emerge in 2009. Early project field days and workshops highlighted several accessible or near-term energy options that farmers can use to buffer their farms from energy cost spikes or shortages.


Craig Chase
Agriculture Extension
Iowa State University
312 Westbrook Ln
Ames, IA 50014
Office Phone: 3192382997
Chris Goedhart
Chair, Department of Agriculture
Dordt College
498 4th Ave. NE
Sioux Center, IA 51250-1606
Office Phone: 7127226276
Matt Liebman
Iowa State University
1401 Agron
Ames, IA 50011
Office Phone: 5152947486
Teresa Opheim
Executive Director
Practical Farmers of Iowa
137 Lynn Ave., Suite 200
Ames, IA 50014
Office Phone: 5152325661