The case for switchgrass

November 28, 2012
Switchgrass could be an answer for farmers who are willing to wait three years for a good crop. SOURCE FILE

Corn prices are as a high as they have ever been, so farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula might be surprised to learn that they can probably make more money if they don’t plant corn on every acre on their farms. Planting an alternative crop will help reduce nitrogen pollution fouling local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

What is this crop? It’s switchgrass, a native plant that once grew widely on the Delmarva Peninsula. One of the key things to know about this crop is that it grows well where corn and soybeans don’t. It’s a good candidate for farmland that is soggy, steep or has poor soil. Farmers who plant switchgrass can make money on an area of their farms where they probably weren’t making much money before.

The high carbon content of switchgrass means the plant is an excellent energy source. Switchgrass can be digested into ethanol or burned directly in boilers. Chicken farmers are discovering that switchgrass makes superior bedding in their chicken houses, and mushroom farmers find that it makes great compost.

Further, because switchgrass doesn’t need fertilizers or pesticides in order to thrive, it costs less to produce, and that further boosts a farmer’s net income. The fact that switchgrass doesn’t need the usual agricultural inputs goes a long way toward keeping potential pollutants out of nearby streams and rivers.

Even more importantly, switchgrass has deep roots and soaks up excess nitrogen from the soil, reducing pollution caused by corn, soybeans and chickens. That’s why farmers who grow switchgrass will be able to sell credits under Maryland’s nutrient trading program.

So what’s not to like about switchgrass? Probably just one thing: it takes three years to get going. But after those three years, the crop will grow like gangbusters, and the farmer doesn’t need to replant it every year. By investing three growing seasons to start a switchgrass crop, a farmer lays the groundwork for future, hassle-free profits for many years to come.

By logging onto the Chester River Association’s website,, and checking out the Switchgrass Profit Calculator, any farmer can determine whether growing this hardy plant will help improve his bottom line. Just about any farmer who takes this step will realize that by growing switchgrass, a farmer will find he no longer has to choose between making a living and caring for the environment. He can have it both ways.

Virgil Turner is a conservation planner who has lived in Kent County, Md., all his life. He currently resides in Worton, Md. After a 47-year career with the state and federal government, Turner now works to help Kent County farmers implement river-friendly farming practices.