Biofuel Feedstock Acreage Potential in the Midsouth

Linda Benedict, Salassi, Michael  |  5/13/2015 11:48:54 PM

Michael E. Salassi

Much of the focus of biofuel research involves investigating the types of crops that can be grown as feedstock material for the production of advanced cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic biofuel refers to biofuel derived from cellulose, hemicellulose or lignin from plant, or biomass, sources. Agricultural crops with high biomass yields per acre represent ideal potential sources of feedstock material. Much of the focus of cellulosic biofuel research has been on using alternative agricultural feedstock sources that could be produced on lands not used for traditional crops. Potential feedstock crops being evaluated include crops that produce heavy yields of biomass material per acre, such as energycane, sweet sorghum, switchgrass and miscanthus.

Just as important as determining the feedstock crops to grow in a region is determining if there is sufficient available land area within close proximity to the potential location of a feedstock processing facility. The general objective of this study was to determine the types of cropland that might be available for biofuel feedstock crop production in the Midsouth, the estimated acreage of this land, and locations where concentrations of these land types might support a great enough volume of feedstock production to be logistically feasible in a production/transportation/processing type of economic enterprise.

Data from the 2012 Agricultural Census were used to determine acreage levels for alternative types of agricultural land. The three Midsouth states of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were included in the investigation. County-level data for all counties in each of the three states were collected and tabulated over a range of alternative agricultural land use categories, with the specific goal of identifying land use types that might be suitable for potential biofuel feedstock production. In addition, the data were evaluated in terms of the quantity of available acreage that could potentially be used to produce feedstock crops and the level of aggregation of these land use types across the three-state region.

Results of the evaluation showed an estimated 32.64 million acres of land in farms. This total land in farms is composed of cropland, woodland, permanent pasture and land in farmsteads. Approximately 52.9 percent of this total land area was in cropland, comprising 17.28 million acres. Total woodland and permanent pasture each comprised approximately 20 percent of total farm land area, with 6.98 and 6.61 million acres, respectively. The remaining 5 percent included land in farmsteads, which included area in farm homes, buildings, livestock facilities, ponds, roads and wasteland.

Within farm land designated as cropland, approximately 87.1 percent, or 15.05 million acres, was classified as harvested cropland, being in production each year. Ideally, the development and production of new biofuel feedstock crops would not compete with existing traditional agricultural crops on these specified acres. At least one cropland use category offers promise, and that is idle cropland. This would represent the most economically feasible cropland to bring into production with new feedstock crops, in the sense that no major land improvements or conversion practices would be needed to make the land ready for crop production.

According to the 2012 Agricultural Census, there are approximately 1.31 million acres of idle cropland in the Midsouth region. Arkansas has an estimated idle cropland volume of 312,068 acres; Louisiana has approximately 443,430 acres; and Mississippi, 558,250 acres. Given projected yield per acre estimates for potential feedstock crops, this level of cropland acreage would be more than sufficient to provide enough feedstock material to supply several biofuel processing facilities. The question is whether there are any areas within the Midsouth with a concentration of idle cropland great enough to make transportation costs from field to factory economically affordable.

Acreage levels of idle cropland were mapped at five different acreage volumes to help identify areas of idle cropland concentration. Acreage categories ranged from a low of less than 1,000 acres in the county or parish to a high of more than 10,000 acres in the county or parish. Once these acreage level categories were mapped, several locations within the three-state region were identified as having sufficient idle land to support cellulosic biofuel facilities. In Arkansas, a contingent of six counties within the east central part of the state had the highest volume of idle cropland. Louisiana had a very large contingent of parishes with idle cropland running through the traditional agricultural production areas from the southwest portion of the state up through the northeast portion of the state. In Mississippi, three to four areas appeared to have a contingent of counties with large expanses of idle cropland.

Identification of these potential biofuel feedstock crop production areas represents the first step in the potential development of a cellulosic biofuel production enterprise within the Midsouth region. However, other steps must be accomplished for an economic enterprise of this magnitude and scope to become a reality. Research on the development of potential feedstock crops that could be grown in those areas is required. Further, work must be conducted to determine the logistical possibilities of alternative biofuel processing facility locations within these areas. Finally, there needs to be an available supply of investment capital to finance the construction and operation of a cellulosic biofuel facility. Fortunately for the Midsouth region in general, and Louisiana in particular, there appears to be a sufficient volume of unused, but readily available, cropland that might serve as the production base on which such an enterprise might be developed.

Michael E. Salassi is the Nelson Fairbanks Endowed Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness.

(This article was published in the spring 2015 issue of Louisiana Agriculture Magazine.)

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