Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), a partner of the Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), is engaging landowners in Illinois about opportunities to join the bioindustry by capitalizing on an underutilized resource: marginal land. The laboratory had plenty of ideas to share about marginal land usage at its recent “Bioenergy Crops in Central Illinois” workshop.

Marginal land is a loosely-defined term used to refer to land that is unsuitable for growing most food or cash crops, or is otherwise vulnerable, remote, or impractical to farm. Despite the perceived disadvantages and shortcomings, recent research indicates that marginal land could be put to use growing more resilient cellulosic biomass crops, such as switchgrass. Planting these crops not only offers a new source of income without jeopardizing existing crops, but also diversifies farmers’ opportunities and potential markets.

A group of attendees listens to a presentation

A crowd gathers at ANL's Bioenergy Crops in Central Illinois workshop. (Photo courtesy of ANL)

The workshop brought together more than 45 local farmers, farming consultants, water conservation district staff, and national laboratory staff to investigate the potential of growing biomass crops on marginal land. Sessions included presentations on woody crops and multi-use grasses, water usage and impacts, and market opportunities in Illinois for farmers interested in growing biomass in an area dominated by the corn and soybean markets. Cristina Negri, Principal Agronomist and Environmental Engineer at ANL, also presented on optimizing yields and water quality when utilizing marginal land.

Participants included Western Illinois University researchers and faculty who participate in the Sun Grant Initiative; local producers involved in miscanthus production; a representative of BETO crop partner CERES, who spoke on switchgrass; and others who represent local efforts in advancing the bioindustry.

The ANL staff also used instant polling software to gain insight from the participants about their land, which will be used to inform future studies in the region. Nearly two-thirds of attendees could identify unproductive or unused land that might be ripe for bioenergy crop growth. In fact—dependent on the bioenergy crop they were asked to consider—as many as 85% of attendees thought that certain biomass crops would be a viable option for their land.

Moving forward, ANL plans to continue its regional research and expand its field site in Illinois. With continued outreach and education to the surrounding farmers and communities, Illinois could rapidly become a primary source of crops needed to expand our nation’s supply of clean, renewable, domestically-sourced biofuels.