Bioenergy and Diversity from Sustainable Systems and Crops

2009 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 brings sustainable agriculture further into the public discussion of energy options by demonstrating a practical Midwest 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. We are now collaborating with two institutions, Dordt College and Iowa State University and we utilize the on-farm research network of the nonprofit Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). The institutions implemented, side-by-side in replicated blocks, at Dordt cola continuous-corn system and a three-year “gateway to sustainability” rotation of corn, soybeans, and a winter-or-spring small grain/forage with legume underseeding. Interns at each school document the environmental impact, energetics, and economics of these systems and serve as communicators to their classmates and to external audiences such as FFA. The project additionally brings the producer community direct experience with a number of bioenergy crops and farm-scale technologies.
At the end of 2009 we needed to change cooperators and are now working with Dordt College and Iowa State University. PFI will also collaborate with a continuing rotation study through work with Drs. Matt Liebman and Craig Chase. The Marsden Farm study since 2003 has been comparing environmental, economic and production differences among three rotations: corn-soybean; corn-soybean-spring small grain + red clover; and corn-soybean-spring small grain + 2 years of alfalfa. PFI will work with Dr. Craig Chase to add the energetic comparison to this current study and Rich Schuler, a PFI consultant will sync the data with the energetic comparisons on the Dordt data.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Short-term Outcomes: Farmers, future farmers, and other students become familiar with techniques and technologies that farmers and communities can use now and near-term to increase energy independence. Farmers, future farmers, other students, and others with an interest in agriculture understand the connection between sustainable bioenergy and sustainable agriculture.

Short-term Objectives/Performance Targets: The project has held field days that will help farmers adopt technologies and systems that allow them to increase their energy independence and/or contribution to agricultural energy production. Topics have included biodiesel, ethanol from sorghum, switchgrass for municipal power, small wind chargers, and energy extraction technologies nearing the market.

Intermediate-term Outcomes: 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.

Intermediate-term Objectives/Performance Targets: 2009 was the first year for data bearing on the central cropping systems comparison of this project. It was the second project cropping year for Dordt College, and the first year to strongly illustrate energy contributions from a diversified cropping system. Ellsworth Community College implemented year one of the cropping system study in 2009 but no data was available. Both Dordt College and Ellsworth Community College engaged student interns to document the project and communicate about it to other young people.

At the end of 2009 PFI changed one of the cooperators and began working with Dr. Craig Chase, a Farm and Ag Management Field Specialist at Iowa State University Extension to analyze the data from the ISU Marsden Farm. Dr. Chase will assess labor requirements, input costs, and net returns for the conventional and diversified, low-external-input rotation systems used in the Marsden Farm experiment. Data collected from the experiment plots concerning field operations, inputs, and yields, in combination with market prices and agricultural engineering and agricultural economics data bases will be used to complete the objective. Dr. Chase will also develop energy budgets to assess the contrasting cropping systems using the established databases.

To determine the effects of government subsidies, carbon payments, and “green payment” policies on economic performance of the different cropping systems, a profitability assessment with and without government program payments will be conducted. Both existing subsidy programs and possible future programs (i.e., the results of new federal farm and climate legislation) will be considered. The individual crop enterprise budgets developed will be adjusted to include or exclude government payments, aggregated into crop rotations, and compared.

Dr. Chase will complete economic assessments associated with this objective in years 2 and 3 of the project. PFI will work with Dr. Chase and with Dordt College in Years Two and Three to conduct extensive outreach on the Dordt and Marsden Farm data. In addition, PFI staff will devote significant time to developing print publications, web updates, media placement and editorials on bioenergy and the need for diversity in cropping systems. That media outreach will focus on farmers as spokespeople in highlighting analyses farmers have done and changes they have made in their operations based on the research conducted in this grant.


In its second year, the cropping systems comparison at Dordt College yielded the project’s first indications of the energetics and economics associated with the two treatments. See table and Outcomes section. With support from PI Dr. Chris Goedhardt, Amanda Stout, the project intern at Dordt College, used the project as a teaching tool with high school agriculture classes in the area. Through the project she was able to initiate discussions about the energy, economic, and environmental outcomes of different farming systems.

The project supported cropping systems field days at Dordt College (Sioux Center, attendance 46) and at Ellsworth Community College (Iowa Falls, 60). In addition, the project contributed to field days featuring new wind charger installations on the farms of PFI members Gary and Nancy Guthrie (Nevada, 60) and Linda Barnes/Mark Runquist (Melbourne, 25).

PFI has begun work with Dr. Craig Chase and a summary of that project will be made available mid 2010.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes


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