USDA Funds New and Expanded Biomass Crop Assistance Program Projects
June 13th, 2012
On June 13, USDA announced that it using $9.6 million to fund two new Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) projects, in New York and North Carolina, and to expand an existing project in Arkansas. The sign-up period for these project areas will begin June 18, 2012 and end on Sept. 14, 2012. USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which administers the program with conservation planning assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other partners, will enter into contracts with landowners and operators in these project areas.
A new BCAP project in nine counties in upstate New York will provide funding to participants to plant shrub willow on up to 3,500 acres. About $4.3 million in BCAP will be provided for the project, which is sponsored by ReEnergy Holdings LLC. The company will use the willow feedstock as biofuel to generate electricity. The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse will offer an outreach program to educate local government officials, agricultural leaders, farmers and landowners about the opportunity to grow willow. The region’s “Come Farm With Us” campaign will also conduct outreach to new and beginning farmers and the St. Regis Mohawk reservation.
Unfortunately, the new North Carolina project will pay farmers to establish a Giant Miscanthus hybrid, Miscanthus x giganteus, on more than 4,000 acres of land and the expanded Arkansas project also funds Giant Miscanthus planting. The 2008 Farm Bill includes a provision prohibiting BCAP project funding to establish any plant that is invasive or noxious or has the potential to become invasive or noxious. Many Miscanthus species have proven to be invasive but USDA contends that the Giant Miscanthus hybrid used in this BCAP project is sterile and will not pose a significant ecological threat as an invasive species.
This conclusion, however, is belied by the findings of the Environmental Assessment (EA) and a Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact for the project. In response to concerns raised by the EA, the project scope was significantly reduced from an original project of 58,000 acres. In addition, a detailed monitoring and mitigation protocol has been developed for the project that includes continuous monitoring of seed to ensure that is sterile, setbacks from areas where non-sterile invasive Miscanthus species occur that could interbreed with the hybrid, and prohibitions on planting the hybrid on land that could flood with resultant transport of vegetative rhizomes. Although these precautions are commendable, they also clearly indicate that USDA has concerns that hybrid Miscanthus used in the project has the potential to become invasive.