University of South Carolina Biologist Steve Kresovich may have felt like an alien speaking to farmers at a recent Clemson University field day at the Pee Dee Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Florence, S.C., but what he had to say resonated well in terms of dollars and cents to the large crowd attending the event.

Kresovich is part of a team of USC researchers looking for crops that can be adapted to less productive and often under-utilized South Carolina soils.

Finding something that will grow and that has some value to farmers in a rural enterprise is a bit challenging, he admits.

Clemson Agronomist Jim Frederick has tested switchgrass for several years at the PeeDee research center.

The University of South Carolina research team is working in cooperation with Frederick and other Clemson researchers to find fast growing, high volume biomass crops that can be adapted for production in South Carolina.

The end goal, Kresovich says, is to develop biomass crops that can be used to produce energy and that can be grown profitably by South Carolina farmers.

Solving the logistics and marketing problems will be much easier than finding crops that grow well in the state, he adds.

He showed the farm group what looked like a large planting of sugar cane. “This is not sugarcane, this is energy cane,” he said. Energy cane is a highly productive crop that meets the criteria of growing well on less than optimum soil, does well in drought, heat, and cold tolerance — and overall is productive over a wide range of soil and climate conditions in South Carolina.

Kresovich says that energy cane is a cross between commercially grown sugarcane produced in Florida and Louisiana wild relatives of sugarcane.

While commercially grown sugarcane probably wouldn't do well as far north as South Carolina, there are many relatives of sugarcane grown all over the world and in climates similar to those found in the Southeast, Kresovich says.

The biology part of finding productive grain and grass crops to grow on marginal land will be the easy part, he says. “I worked with sugarcane in Texas, and we had one sugar mill that serviced more than 40,000 acres of production. Those are the kind of issues we will face in developing alternative crops for the Southeast,” he says.

The energy cane being grown at the PeeDee Research Station was propagated from vegetative stock and grown as a perennial crop.