Robert Gilbert stays occupied these daysdeveloping a type of sugarcane exactly the opposite of the clones he normally turns out.

A plant breeder and director of the Everglades Research and Education Center near Belle Glade, Fla., his latest project aims for high fiber and low sucrose cane that can be grown in high plant populations.

The sugar industry on the rich muck soils in the Glades built itself on high-sucrose low-fiber cane. The irony is not lost on Gilbert. “It’s a shift in thinking,” he says. “But our goal is different.”

These new energy canes will be grown for cellulosic ethanol production. A processing facility is now planned north of Lake Okeechobee in Highlands County near the Brighton Indian Reservation. Operated by Vercipia, which is owned by BP, the proposed plant would turn out 36 million gallons of ethanol yearly, mostly using energy cane as a feedstock.

Vercipia announced a partnership with Lykes Brothers to produce the feedstock on 20,000 or more acres of land. The plant was originally slated to open in late 2011, but several delays to improve roads to the site pushed that date back.

Gilbert and his co-workers shoot for a higher percentage of fiber in energy cane, breeding in traits from wild cane. They’re also hoping for increased cold tolerance and disease resistance.

They have to be careful, however.“Giant reed has potential, but there are concerns about its invasiveness,” Gilbert says. “Sugarcane growers are worried about that. What if it escapes? It does extremely well on muck and would be hard to manage in sugarcane fields. That means we have to question whether giant reed is an answer.

“Something else that might work is elephant grass, which is from Africa. But it’s considered a weed in sugarcane fields. Growers aren’t enthusiastic about it, either. What looks good so far are canes that naturally have high fiber and would never be considered for sugarcane.”

Walking among energy cane plots at the experiment station, Gilbert notes the differences between these plants and sugarcane grown on thousands of acres nearby.

“Sugarcane growers would not be enthusiastic about this stuff, but we have to remember that it’s for a different purpose. If Florida could get a cellulosic ethanol plant up and running, that would result in jobs for the state. We need to have an improved energy cane ready for that time,” he says.

The sugarcane side of the Canal Point breeding program continues to come up with new material of use to growers, Gilbert says.

A collaborative effort of University of Florida, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, and the Florida Sugarcane League, the program is now 50 years old. It is unique, he says, since a grower committee votes on which sugarcane clones to release.

It takes 10 years to develop a sugarcane clone,Gilbert notes. “We average one release a year. The goal is to develop a pipeline of clones so when diseases attack we have a line of natural defense. Since sugarcane propagates vegetatively, we have to continually develop the breeding program, making crosses.

“An example of the kind of thing that happens occurred in 2007, when orange rust appeared in this hemisphere. None of our clones were resistant to it.”

Now, Gilbert says, “We’re working on that and have some promising ones. Fortunately for our growers, Rick Raid, our plant pathologist, identified a fungicide that works on it.”