Provided the snow stops, planting will get underway in a few weeks on two small crops of sugar beets at Iowa State University test farms in southeast Iowa. The beets are being grown as a possible alternative source for making biofuel.
Vince Lawson is superintendant of the Muscatine Island Research and Demonstration Farm near Fruitland. Lawson says, "The project came about because a group of investors wanted to start an ethanol plant, which isn’t all that unusual here in Iowa, but what is unusual is that they wanted to make it a sugar-based ethanol plant, in other words, they’d use a crop that makes sugar and not starch."
While most of the 40-some ethanol plants in Iowa use starch derived from corn, Lawson says for making sugar, the sugar beet can’t be, well, beat. "Sugar beets are very efficient at just producing sugar," Lawson says. "Our table sugar, some of that comes from sugar beets, of course. To date, sugar beets haven’t been grown down here in southeast Iowa."
The first crops on the half-acre plots near Fruitland and near Crawfordsville were planted a year ago and harvested last spring. This will be the second year for the sugar beets, testing to see where they might grow best. "These two locations are really two different growing environments," Lawson says. "Here at the Muscatine Island research farm, we have a sandy soil and we use irrigation. In Crawfordsville, it’s more of a typical black Iowa soil and it’s not irrigated."
At the Crawfordsville farm, last year’s crop showed about five-point-five tons of sugar could be extracted from about 35 tons of beets. That sugar would end up making nearly 900 gallons of ethanol. The Muscatine Island farm produced an average of four tons of sugar, which were extracted from nearly 25 tons of beets.
Heartland Renewable Energy is planning to build an ethanol plant in Muscatine in 2011. More information on I-S-U’s research can be found at this website .