Officials from the Wayne Conservation District (WCD) hosted a recent site visit to a two-acre plot where a blend of grasses was planted nearly three years ago on county-owned property to assess the viability of the blend as an alternative energy crop.
The demonstration area is maintained by WCD staff. The site contains native warm-season grasses in a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-recommended mix of switch grass, Indian grass and big blue stem. Switch grass, the dominant species in the plot, has been recognized as a potential biomass for energy.
“We approached the commissioners about the idea of putting a demonstration plot out here at the county farm,” said WCD manager Robert Mueller Jr. “There’s been a lot of interest in this as an alternative energy crop for biomass, for pellets, for possible ethanol production. We thought we should have a plot to see what can be grown.”
WCD received funding through the USDA Pocono Northeast Resource, Conservation and Development Council to offset costs for the planting and used its no-till planter to install the grasses at the county-owned site. WCD staff has been monitoring its growth.
The grass takes about three to four years for good establishment and is very tolerant of drought, heat and poor quality soils. According to Mueller, its forage quality is “not great” as it doesn’t test high in protein.
Members of the WCD board of directors and officials from various agencies asked questions and offered suggestions during the visit, which preceded the WCD’s regular monthly meeting.
Now in its third growing season, the grass is well established.
Eventually, it could reach a height of six to seven feet.
“We’re talking about whether to cut it, burn it or to leave it stand for now,” said Mueller.
“This is an option for landowners instead of goldenrod and multiflora rose,” he added. “If you’re going to leave these hayfields to go dormant, find something else to plant on them. It’s great habitat for wintering bird species, grouse, pheasants and rabbits. It’s something we’ve lacked in our area for a long time and it helps keep invasives from coming in. Deer will use it for bedding, so even hunting clubs are thinking of planting it.”
“If you’re looking at some feral fields that haven’t had a lot of attention, this is a good alternative, without putting a lot of investment in it,” said PA Department of Environmental Protection Conservation District Field Representative Shane Kleiner.
Other possible demonstration crops, such as hybrid poplar, were briefly discussed.
“We can bring landowners out here or refer them here to see what the switch grass is and how it grows and hopefully have some ideas of success and failure of management techniques. We’d rather test it here than have a farmer plant 10 or 15 acres and have a failure, so this gives us an opportunity to actually see what it’s going to do.”
The plot can be observed to the right of the entrance to the Wayne County Recycling Center, which is located on Route 652 in Berlin Township, Wayne County, approximately 1.7 miles northeast of the intersection of Route 6 and Route 652, between Indian Orchard and Beach Lake. Contact WCD at 570/253-0930 for more information.