Scientists are exploring the potential for growing switchgrass and eastern cottonwood agroforests to expand the production of biofuels in the Mississippi River Valley of Arkansas and Louisiana. A new project will assess the level of carbon absorbed and emitted during the production, harvesting and delivery of these crops to potential conversion facilities.

The five-year project is led by scientists from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and the Louisiana State University AgCenter. The project is being supported by a $973,219 grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA with $632,301 of the budget being supervised by the University of Arkansas.

“The long-term goal is to develop ecologically and economically viable agroforest cropping systems suitable for producing cellulosic bioenergy feedstocks on marginal agricultural land,” said Hal Liechty, professor of forest resources at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, who is a co-director of the project with six other UA and LSU faculty researchers. “Marginal lands in this region will likely be the most appropriate areas for bioenergy production since their use will have the least negative impact on the production of current agricultural crops.”

Monitoring and assessing the absorption and losses of carbon involved with these agroforest systems will help to determine if they will reduce or contribute to levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If less carbon is emitted than stored by these crops, landowners may be able to sell the rights to this carbon in new emerging markets. Carbon gains in the soil as well as biomass can be traded on existing carbon markets. Under strong market conditions, carbon trading can provide annual payments of $30 to $50 an acre to landowners.

Research will be conducted at the UA Division of Agriculture’s Pine Tree Research Station near Colt, the Rohwer Research Station and a private farm near Archibald, Louisiana. Results will be compared with carbon removal and biofuel production from conventional cropping systems.