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Annual dairy day promotes switch grass use; farmers look for ways to succeed

By Fritz Mayer
February 22, 2012

One of the Dairy Day programs that attracted considerable attention was a display called “Native Grasses for Energy,” which highlighted the use of switch grass for energy production.

The occasion was the 34th Annual Dairy Day/Ag Day exhibit held at the Honesdale High School building on Presidents Day. Over 20 supporting agriculture organizations and businesses, as well as numerous other related organizations, showed up to voice their support for dairies. The event continued the tradition begun a few years ago to organize the event with the Sullivan County, NY Dairy Association.

Bob Thomas, who operated the native grass for energy booth, is from the Pocono Northeast Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC&D), which is promoting the growth of switch grass and other biomass crops as an economically and environmentally sustainable product.

“One of the problems is that farmers don’t want to grow biomass crops because there is no market,” Thomas said. “It’s like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? Someone has to make an investment. A municipality, the County of Wayne, or the hospital could create a combined heat and power plant that would burn all local biomass, including agricultural waste and by-products. Switch grass, hay and other similar crops could be used to generate electricity.”

Pennsylvania will bring some funding but a feasibility study must be held first, Thomas said. The locality must put up about 50 percent and the state will match it through a program called Renewable Energy America Program (REAP). “Officials must get together and say ‘We’re going to grow our own energy here.’”

The Benton School District in Columbia County has done it, he said. “They called in the farmers and said, “We’re going to burn switch grass and wood chips in our furnaces. They got grant money to buy the boilers.”

Brian Smith, chairman of the Wayne County Commissioners and a former dairyman, offered a word of caution. “There are real problems in growing a high-quality switch grass here,” he said. “It’s not that easy. There are problems harvesting the grass so that it is dry and has enough BTUs to make it effective.”

One session at the event, called “Farmer Listening Session: What Do Dairy Farmers Need in Order to Succeed?,” was an open forum discussion intended to gather information about the needs of local farmers, according to Ed Pruss of the Wayne Cooperative Extension, one of the principal organizers of the event. Other sessions were held to explore other paths to success in dairy.