South Carolina Undergrads Come to ISU to Learn about Bioenergy

May 28, 2019 12:11 PM
Blog Post

Summer trip?! Undergraduate students commonly take trips during the summer that consists of hiking in the mountains, relaxing on the beaches, or experiencing a new culture in a foreign country. However, one group of students from Furman University in Greenville, SC broke the mold and chose something different. Dr. Glen Halva-Neubauer, a professor of politics and international affairs, brought a group of eight students to the rain-soaked cornfields of Iowa for three weeks to learn all about agricultural practices and policies that aim to maximize farm profitability and mitigate environmental impact. This is a two-credit course, named simply as “Farm”, which is offered to students from all majors at Furman Univ. Dr. Halva-Neubauer is a native to Radcliffe, Iowa, where his family still owns and operates a dairy farm. Although Dr. Halva-Neubauer chose to leave the family farm and pursue another profession, he feels that he is giving back to the family business by teaching this course and giving his students a chance to experience Iowa agriculture first-hand.

 Josh Bendorf) ​
Figure 1: Dr. Heaton showing the Farm students the location of the field sites
(Photo credit: Josh Bendorf)

 Josh Bendorf)
Figure 2: Miscanthus plant visual aid - top (left) & bottom (right)
 (Photo credit: Josh Bendorf)

Dr. Emily Heaton and a group of students from her lab (both graduate and undergraduate students) hosted the ‘Farm’ course students at the Field Extension Education Laboratory (FEEL). Unfortunately, due to our extremely rainy weather, we were not able to take them around to our various field projects. Nonetheless, we still kept the students entertained for over an hour by telling them about all the exciting research that the Heaton lab does with miscanthus. Dr. Heaton gave the students a visual tour of the CABBI and Pothole Project field sites via Google Maps (Figure 1). A visual aid made by the Heaton Lab of mature miscanthus stems attached to PVC was displayed (Figure 2), although it had to be in two pieces due to the ceiling height in the room. Yes – you heard that right! The miscanthus display is so tall it couldn’t be displayed in the room.

Early Growth Grasses
Figure 3: Switchgrass (left), miscanthus (center), and corn (right), new growth from the 2019 growing season. Notice how much larger the switchgrass and Miscanthus are compared to corn.
(Photo Credit: Josh Bendorf)

After a brief overview of the research conducted by Dr. Heaton and our collaborators, the students had the opportunity for a Q&A session with the Dr. Heaton, the graduate students, and undergrads from her lab. The ‘Farm’ course addresses topics of agricultural policy and sustainability and those were the focus of many of the questions. A key question they asked was ‘what are the benefits of growing a perennial grass like miscanthus versus traditional corn and soybeans?’ We emphasized to the students that compared to corn, miscanthus requires lower inputs of water and fertilizer, yields more biomass per acre (Figure 3), and can grow well in marginal soils (such as in the potholes) [1]. We also reiterated that this perennial crop does not need to be cut every year as an annual does, which means less farmer effort and fewer periods where the soil is bare. The topic of climate change was brought up by a few students, which was excellent since this is an important, yet controversial issue. I was glad that this topic came up not only because I have an Atmospheric Science degree, but also because the room was full of a diverse audience interested in careers in science, sustainability, and/or public policy. If we can sit down and have constructive dialogue about climate change, we can then come with real ideas of how to educate stakeholders (such as farmers and landowners) on this issue and suggest ways that they can mitigate climate change through the use of perennials, i.e. miscanthus. The ‘Farm’ course students left ISU to continue on their tour of Iowa agriculture after stopping to hear about growing sustainably-sourced biofuels from perennial crops like miscanthus.

[1] Heaton, EA, FG Dohleman, SJ Long. (2008) Meeting US biofuel goals with less land: the potential of Miscanthus. Global Change Biology. 14. 2000–2014.