Show me the money. It may sound crass, but until it’s profitable for farmers to grow crops that can be made into biofuel, there may never be a serious biofuel alternative to fossil fuels.

Now, Cristina Negri of Argonne National Laboratory is testing whether growing willow trees for biofuel, alongside traditional food crops like corn, can help farmers improve their bottom line. She hopes to demonstrate that farmers do not have to sacrifice their current profit to produce crops for biofuel. As a test, Negri planted willow trees in an unproductive section of a corn field where they can absorb the extra nitrogen from fertilizer that was not used by the corn.

Negri: “So they grow just as much because they have this free fertilizer.”

So the farmer can grow two crops without much extra expense. And because the willows absorb the excess nitrogen from farmers’ fields, they help protect local streams, rivers, and lakes. So Negri says these more diverse farms provide both environmental and financial benefits.

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Negri: “But we’ve been working with the farmers in the area to try to understand from them what would be their benefit. And so we are really trying to develop a solution that is really vetted by them as well as by science.”

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: Corn and willow, a biofuel crop, coexist on an Illinois farm (credit: Patty Campbell/Argonne National Laboratory).

More Resources
Argonne National Laboratory
The power of willow and switchgrass: Scientists, farmers team up on bioenergy experiment
Scientists study ways to integrate biofuels and food crops on farms

Diana Madson

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...