Great Plains Agroforestry: Evaluation of Bioenergy Feedstock and Carbon Sequestration as Potential Long-term Revenue Streams to Diversify Landowner Income

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2012: $191,212.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: trees


  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: extension, focus group, networking, workshop
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, feasibility study, agricultural finance, market study, risk management
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, afforestation, habitat enhancement, riparian buffers
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, new business opportunities, employment opportunities


    The overall project goal was to evaluate the potential of agroforestry plantings in the Great Plains to provide bio-based feedstock, income, investment, and carbon sequestration opportunities. An assessment of land capability and landuse indicated that 12.4% of the study area (ND, SD, NE, & KS) would be considered marginal for crop production using criteria developed specifically for this project and that 68% of the identified land is currently used for grazing or hay production. Five focus group meetings with a total of 35 farmers and ranchers responsible for on-farm decisions and a survey of over 450 farm operators were used to obtain feedback on perceptions of and interest in woody feedstock production. The tree growth and biomass estimates component of the project were not completed as planned so improved site- and species- specific estimates of feedstock production potential were not obtained. The sustainability of the tree windbreaks as assessed through soil quality assessment at 8 representative plantings with common soils and tree species of the region indicated that tree establishment generally increased the amount of soil organic carbon (6 of 8 locations) and improved overall soil quality.

    The study results indicate considerable interest in the use of trees for biomass production and other concomitant land-use benefits. Sixty-one percent of the farmers and ranchers surveyed expressed some level of interest in producing woody biomass, with 10% of respondents reporting they were “very interested”. There was a broad general interest in the establishment and management of trees for multifunctional outcomes within participants’ farm/ranch systems (environmental and production). Farmers and ranchers noted the potential utilitarian benefits of woody systems largely in the context of utilizing woody systems to enhance profit potential of their existing cropping systems or as a way to expand profit potential through income diversification (e.g., selling biomass). Currently, markets for woody biomass in the Northern Great Plains do not broadly exist. As such, biomass systems developed primarily as a crop would not be highly attractive to profit-oriented farmers/landowners. In the context of integrating trees into agricultural landscapes for conservation reasons (e.g., windbreaks, buffers), biomass production is a complimentary endeavor, particularly as bioenergy markets emerge regionally. In commodity-oriented agricultural landscapes a major roadblock for the adoption of tree-based practices or plantations is decidedly pragmatic; the high (real or perceived) opportunity costs of growing trees relative to typical commodity production.

    In order for farmers/ranchers to participate as suppliers of woody biomass, they require additional information in order to assess the reality of the opportunity within the context of their existing agricultural system. Information needs expressed by participants in all focus groups fit into three broad categories (1) technical information relevant to the establishment, growth, harvesting, and marketing of woody biomass, (2) the environmental sustainability of producing biomass on marginal land, and (3) the economic sustainability of producing a biomass crop within their farm system.


    The Energy Independence and Security Act established a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuels be produced annually in the U.S. by 2022. Of this amount, 44.4% of the RFS is to be based on cellulosic feedstocks. Agroforestry systems have the synergistic power to diversify food, fiber, fuel, and ecosystem service delivery systems as well as to diversify on-farm income streams for farmers and ranchers in the North Central Region (NCR). But to use agroforestry practices to meet the RFS goals requires improved assessment of feedstock supplies, concerted and coordinated engagement from farmer to regional scales, and validation of soil and environmental impacts. One strategy for addressing these important challenges is to utilize regionally appropriate perennial plants, including short-rotation woody species, on marginal agricultural lands. This strategy reduces the impact on food production (i.e., the “food vs. fuel” debate) and is likely to also provide environmental quality benefits to fragile or degraded lands.

    Land cover data from 2009 indicates that 53.2% of the four Great Plains states in the NCR is in grass cover (Fig. 1 Final Report Fig 1). Major crops include corn (9.7%), soybean (8.8%), winter wheat (6.2%), and spring wheat (4.4%). These states also have an extended history of agroforestry plantings beginning with the Prairie States Forestry Project (PSFP) of the 1930s when over 210 million trees were planted as windbreaks on approximately 237,000 acres in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas (U.S. Forest Service, 1935; Droze, 1977). In recent decades, significant numbers of multi-species riparian buffers have also been planted in the region. The 2009 land cover data indicated that 2.9% of the four state area was now in forest cover. There are distinct advantages of agroforestry plantings as a source of bio-based feedstocks including accessibility, equipment availability for biomass harvesting and transport, and rural roads and cooperatives to facilitate supply logistics. However, there are also important gaps in our knowledge about these systems that must be answered before landowner and community investments in biofuel production are likely to proceed. Accurately quantifying the amount of biomass in trees is vital for investment and business planning decisions, but is currently a vague process. Clarifying what we mean by ‘marginal lands’ and being able to recommend appropriate site characteristics (soil and climate) for future plantings is critical knowledge for environmental sustainability.

    One of our overall project goals is to fully integrate human dimensions into the analysis. We completed a comprehensive financial and land-user based socio-economic assessment that compliments field results with full-cost accounting of, and an evaluation of farm operator interest in, potential woody biomass systems established on “marginal” farmland within our study region. Furthermore, we integrate an assessment of land management agency staff perspectives concerning woody biomass systems given their importance in land-use policy and programs and operator decision making. The combined socio-economic approach addresses gaps in understanding the complex factors that impact marginal land availability and opportunities for attracting farm operator commitment towards supplying bioenergy feedstock in regions less suitable for grain ethanol production.

    Farm operator decisions regarding woody systems on marginal land are a function of how they weigh financial goals with other land-use goals (e.g., environmental and/or social, family) and the degree to which land-use goals interact to create or mitigate risk (Chouinard et al., 2008). Various constraints on self-efficacy, such as available capital, land tenure, and knowledge, also strongly mediate decision-making (Tyndall, 2009). Furthermore, land-use decisions in agricultural regions are often influenced by the availability of institutional support through technical and financial assistance programs. Land management field agents, such as state Department of Natural Resources, county NRCS, and Cooperative Extension staff, serve as the intermediaries between policy priorities/funding and farmers who wish to adopt new and potentially risky land-use options. It is those individuals in outreach positions who are often the most effective “change-agents” (Rogers, 2003) – individuals who directly disseminate (or otherwise market) new knowledge, land-use practices and alternative means for managing land-use risk (Lemke et al., 2010; Kroeger and Casey, 2007). More specifically, research has shown that a key to farmer adoption of production processes that jointly produce environmental services is the availability of technical support and analysis, working demonstrations, and opportunities to network with other farm operators (Lemke et al., 2010; Petrehn, 2011).


    Chouinard, H.H., Paterson, T., Wandschneider, P.R., and Ohler, A.M. 2008. Will farmers trade profits for stewardship? Heterogeneous motivations for farm practice selection. Land Economics. 8(1):66-82.

    Droze, W.H. 1977. Trees, Prairies, and People – A History of Tree Planting in the Plains States. Texas Woman’s University, Denton.

    Lemke, A.M., Lindenbaum, T.T., Perry, W.L., Herbert, M.E., Tear, T.H., and Herkert, J.R. 2010. Effects of outreach on the awareness and adoption of conservation practices by farmers in two agricultural watersheds of the Mackinaw River, Illinois. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 65:304-315.

    Petrehn, M.R. 2011. (unpublished MS Thesis) Beef, Birds or Both? The Social Landscape of Grazing Management in an Iowa Bird Conservation Area. MS Thesis, Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University. Spring 2011.

    Rogers, E.M. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th Ed. Free Press, New York. 551 pp.

    Tyndall, J.C. 2009. Characterizing pork producer demand for shelterbelts to mitigate odor: an Iowa case study. Agroforestry Systems. 77(3):205-221.

    U.S. Forest Service. 1935. Possibilities of Shelterbelt Planting in the Plains Region. Lake States Forest Experiment Station Special Publication. 201 pp.


    Project objectives:

    The overall project goal is to evaluate the potential of agroforestry plantings in the Great Plains to provide bio-based feedstock, income, investment, and carbon sequestration opportunities. 

    Specific project objectives are: 1) To identify farm operator and land management professional perceptions of agroforestry plantings on marginal lands as a practice for woody biomass production for bioenergy and obstacles for greater adoption of this practice, 2) develop a field-level financial appraisal to identify the potential profitability of various “marginal land woody systems”, 3) utilize an available land productivity interpretation tool to quantify the extent and distribution of marginal agricultural lands in the study area, 4) test and refine current tree biomass estimation equations to improve biomass estimates for trees in agroforestry plantings, and 5) measure soil organic carbon content beneath existing agroforestry plantings and compare with model predictions to enable regional estimates of potential carbon sequestration with agroforestry practices.

    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.