By Jack Nissen
When Scott Swinton, an agriculture, food and resource economics professor at Michigan State University, asked farmers if they’d be interested in renting their land for bioenergy crops, the initial response was unexpected.
“The first thing we found was that a number of people that we sent questionnaires to were hoping MSU was secretly trying to find people they could rent land from to grow bioenergy crops,” Swinton said.
“I got scores of phone calls from people telling me they would love to rent their land to MSU if we were interested.”
But that wasn’t what Swinton was looking for. Instead, he was trying to study the willingness of farmers to rent out the land that isn’t used for crops. Turns out, farmers weren’t so interested in the prospect of renting out their land.
When it comes to landowners deciding how to use their territory, it’s not only money that factored into the decision-making, Swinton said.
In 2007, MSU and the University of Wisconsin received a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct bioresearch. Money was invested in microbiology, chemical engineering and liquid biofuels. The idea was to find ways to reduce dependence on imported fuels and increase production of renewable energy.
Corn is king when it comes to biofuel. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 94 percent of all biofuel production – 12.9 billion gallons – came from corn in 2012.
Most of that is grown on land that’s designated as cropland, according to the agricultural census in 2012. That amounts to 42.6 percent of the Midwest. But with increased emphasis on bio energy, scientists have been looking further north for land to grow bio crops.
“It’s all about going further north than where we now grow food crops, taking land that is capable of producing biofuel crops, but is not currently doing it,” said Steven Pueppke, a professor of plant pathology at Michigan State University.
That’s marginal land, Pueppke said. It doesn’t have trees like a forest, but also isn’t optimal for growing crops. Its lack of use intrigues scientists.
The allure of this land is that it wouldn’t divert cropland from growing corn for food. But it also wouldn’t remove trees from forests, which help eat up the carbon produced from burning these fuels, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet.
That’s where Swinton’s study comes in. Using such alternative fuels doesn’t only concern bioenergy potential, but also land availability, economic feasibility and landowners’ desirability to use their land for it.
“We live in a capitalist democracy, so the owners get to decide what happens to their land,” Swinton said. “Our research question here was ‘would the owners of this land be willing to make it available?’”
The answer: Not often.
Growing corn was only one of three options offered as potential crops to be used for bioenergy. Switchgrass and poplar trees were also offered. The Department of Agriculture has shown that both plants have success on marginal land due to their adaptability.
The study found only 11 percent of the evaluated land was marginal, which came with a high degree of reluctance by landowners to rent it out. Even at asking prices far exceeding the typical rental rate for one acre, few respondents were interested in the hypothetical offer.
Rental rates at $15, which was half the rental price for one acre in the region. Then $30, $60 and $90 were offered.
Even at three times the normal rate, there was only 20-25 percent of the land the researchers were interested in would be made available by landowners, Swinton said.
If money wasn’t the driving factor for these landowners, what was?
Answers ranged from recreational activities like hunting and hiking, to loss of aesthetics to the land and even some wishing to avoid noise and sight invasion of their property.
“When you think about it — there are things people like about their land,” Swinton said. “Like, that’s good deer habitat or that’s good hunting habitat.”
“You know how it is, everybody’s got a place up north.” Pueppke said. “Most of the people that I know are up there to have fun and enjoy the outdoors and fish. They’re not up there trying to make extra money.”