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Sow seeds for jobs, prepare ground for biofuels

We have a long way to go and a short time to get there

America needs real solutions for reducing our dependence on imported energy. It's no secret that answers can be found on the farms of Oregon rather than oil fields overseas.

In 2007, Congress enacted the Renewable Fuels Standard, requiring 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, of which no more than 15 billion gallons can come from corn starch. Whereas more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol is now in the national fuel pool, only 3 million gallons of non-corn starch fuels might be made next year.

That's a dilemma. While it has taken America more than 20 years to produce more than 10 billion gallons of ethanol using a crop grown for centuries, now we have just 10 years to produce another 20 billion gallons using new feedstocks.

What feedstocks are available? Last month, the Department of Energy issued 'The Billion Ton Study,' which estimates up to 1.6 billion tons of energy biomass could be harvested sustainably by 2030 from America's farms and forests without affecting food, feed and fiber.

So the real question isn't how much, but when. Many existing farm and forest residues - corn stover, cobs, bark and broken limbs - are uneconomically retrievable. Newly grown crop supplies may need years to mature before harvesting. Producers unfamiliar with new cultivars need education, training, practice and financial assurance to venture from known commodities with time-tested markets. The chicken-or-egg challenge is whether crops can be grown before facilities are built, or whether facilities can be financed without enough crops established? Somebody must go first.

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, takes those first steps. By helping farmers and forest landowners with the start-up costs of creating and harvesting energy biomass, BCAP ensures that enough non-food crops will be established in time for next-generation biorefineries to operate.

This summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced more than $80 million for farmers to grow crops like miscanthus, switchgrass, poplar and camelina, sowing the seeds of up to 7,000 new jobs. Here in Oregon, producers in Wasco, Union, Jefferson, Union and Klamath counties can receive USDA incentive funding to begin growing camelina, a new energy producing crop that converts well to jet fuel. There are two project areas in four western states where camelina can be grown under contract with project sponsors to earn the BCAP per-acre payment. In Oregon, Beaver Biodiesel in Albany is the sponsor for camelina, and Zeachem Inc. is the sponsor for a project to grow hybrid poplar for processing at its facility in Boardman. Both of these crops are to be converted into biofuels. With two of the nation's nine project areas approved for funding under BCAP, Oregon's agricultural community is in the forefront of exploring the production of non-food feedstocks for biofuel energy.

USDA estimates that to meet national biofuels targets by 2022, BCAP could create up to 700,000 jobs in rural America. New energy crops underscore the enormous economic potential for family farms and rural towns.

But as the song says, we have a long way to go and a short time to get there. In the interest of national security, shouldn't we begin now? Without programs like BCAP, though, our goal remains out of reach.