Fall Harvest of Switchgrass in Northwest PA
The Association of Warm-Season Grass Producers (AWSGP) has had a busy year, and now voices market optimism for perennial grass products.
One of the group’s primary efforts from the start has been to welcome businesses to its ranks, particularly in an effort to connect buyers of warm-season grasses to growers of available grass material. An often-cited struggle in perennial grass agriculture is the “chicken-egg” effect, where buyers have need of material but lack of connection to available supply, and growers could easily ramp up production but must wait for a stable buyer. It’s a tension exacerbated by the practical management needs of a perennial crop with a multi-year establishment cycle. The industry is all too familiar with the stalemate that can result when buyers wait for assurances from growers, and vice versa. The AWSGP’s approach, then, was to create a known group of growers with focused interest in finding markets, a welcome space for buyers to pitch calls for material. After a few years of building its membership, getting the word out, learning from other established grass grower groups (including one in Canada), and launching grant-funded demonstrations like its current Northeast SARE poultry bedding project, the AWSGP now reports what it sees as an uptick in markets for perennial grasses.
Some of this certainly relates to the AWSGP’s particular success in fostering collaborations in the industry; at least three new grass buyers have placed requests for material through AWSGP communication channels in the past year. Recognition for the group is growing, as membership and collaborators join from as far afield (pun intended) as South Carolina and Ontario. In the last year, AWSGP members attended and presented at high-profile professional conferences and hosted the group’s first annual field membership meeting in Wapwallopen, PA.
Perhaps another reason for new market potential relates to progress made on the AWSGP’s Northeast SARE grant project. With several AWSGP members partnering to determine optimal specifications and processing logistics for warm-season grasses as poultry bedding, the group benefits from better understanding of market needs and collectively delivers a higher product standard.
One AWSGP member also points to current oversupply of mulch hay in the mushroom industry and a corresponding need to rebalance supply with more straw material, a need that can be met by warm-season grasses.
For more discussion on agricultural markets for warm-season grasses, review this Penn State Extension Factsheet, “Alternate Markets for Dedicated Grass Energy Crops.”
A confluence of these factors, then, may be to thank, but opportunity created by new demand languishes without a ready group of suppliers to provide material. Overall, the AWSGP’s chairman Will Brandau credits the improved market outlook for growers in the AWSGP to the group’s ability to adapt to demand, specifically, moving the focus away from strictly fuel applications, adopting wider consideration of markets. “Using warm-season grass for fuel, we had too many challenges and few advantages,” Brandau says. Now, with focus on non-fuel market alternatives like bedding, silt socks, and other fiber and absorption applications, he sees a more promising path forward. “Warm-season grass works better than traditional materials. Instead of challenges, we have advantages.”
Looking ahead, market optimism for this group, if the chicken-egg stalemate is to be avoided, is tied to its ability to connect growers and buyers. The AWSGP is an open group welcoming new members; in addition, it has recently launched its grass census, an effort to take stock of where warm-season grasses are being grown. Census information may allow geographically co-located growers to together access larger-scale markets or alleviate uncertainty among buyers about available supply. You can visit the AWSGP website to participate in the grass census, read up on SARE grant progress, become a member, get on the group email list, or keep abreast of planned events.
Prepared by Sarah Wurzbacher, Penn State Extension, Lycoming County