More than 180 potential switchgrass growers attended production interest meetings that were held in Blount, Loudon, McMinn and Monroe counties in Tennessee, far exceeding expectations for turnout.

The meetings were sponsored by UT Extension and addressed the specific incentives, contract terms and requirements for participating in the $8 million switchgrass farmer incentive program.

The University of Tennessee Office of Bioenergy Programs will administer the three-year switchgrass production contracts with farmers as part of the UT Biofuels Initiative. The Biofuels Initiative is a state commitment of $70 million over five years to a comprehensive bioenergy research and demonstration program that also includes $40.7 million to build and operate a demonstration scale cellulosic ethanol plant. Unlike traditional corn-based ethanol, this biorefinery will produce ethanol from non-food sources, primarily switchgrass and woody biomass.

As part of the incentive program, the Office of Bioenergy Programs will pay participating farmers on a per acre basis to grow switchgrass. Switchgrass seed valued at $120 per acre and technical assistance through UT Extension will also be provided to those selected for the program.

Farmers that participated in the informational meetings were enthusiastic about the potential positive impacts switchgrass production would have on their farms, the environment, and the effort to reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. Many see switchgrass as a new commodity that will help them diversify their operations and make their farms more economically stable.

When operating at full capacity, the biorefinery will require approximately 170 tons of biomass per day. With that in mind, the Initiative’s goal is to plant 800 acres of switchgrass this spring, with an additional 2,000 or more acres to be planted in spring 2009 and another 4,000 or more acres to be planted in spring 2010. Subsequent rounds of proposals will be accepted for switchgrass production for the 2009 and 2010 planting seasons.

More detailed information on the switchgrass farmer incentive program can be found on the Office of Bioenergy Programs Web site at www.UTbioenergy.org .