Oklahoma: Sweet Potential

Tim Sharp moved to Oklahoma State University’s Okmulgee campus from Tennessee to start a new precision agriculture degree and to try to replicate his Mid-South cotton growing breakthroughs in Southwest dryland cotton.

In Tennessee, it took four solid years of data gathering, and the key recognition that soil type is the most influential variable in growing cotton in the Mid-South, before precision practices could be developed and tested. In Oklahoma, the data gathering is only in its second season, but it’s clear that this region will present a new set of challenges.

“What we are starting to see in Southwest cotton is that the crop is limited more by water limited than by soil,” says Sharp. “So we are still struggling with how to sort out a precision approach when water is the most significant issue.”

With cotton seemingly destined to reside on a long-term, slower burn track, Sharp has been looking for projects to fill the space. Fortunately, the country’s sudden shift in focus toward the development of biofuels, and Oklahoma’s natural ability to grow grasses, has led to region-focused biofuel research that is fitting the bill.

“Our big effort right now is in bioenergy,” says Sharp.

There are basically three inputs that can be used to achieve a biofuel endpoint — a finished crop like corn or soybeans, a cellulocid based, dedicated energy crop like switchgrass or crop residue like corn stover, or a sugar-based system that extracts juices from a plant like the sugarcane process being employed in Brazil.

Today, virtually every working biofuel plant in production is using finished crops, and the cellulocid-based model is still a number of years away. So given Oklahoma’s aptitude in the area of grass growing and the success of sugar-based ethanol systems in Brazil, Sharp sees potential for Oklahoma growers using a different sugar-rich crop — sweet sorghum.

“We currently are working on technology that will allow the producer to grow sweet sorghum on his farm that can be used to manufacture fuel grade ethanol,” says Sharp. What makes his vision so compelling is that the combination of just 300 acres of sweet sorghum production with a farm-scale mini ethanol factory has the potential to produce ethanol that can be sold right from the farm gate, and at a substantial profit.

“The system works anywhere you can grow sweet sorghum, and we know how to grow it — we’ve used it to make molasses for a hundred years and we have a long history of growing it here,” says Sharp. What’s more exciting for Sharp is that they are helping to “recreate the classic family farm as a totally viable business unit that you can really make a good living off of.”

So far, Sharp and his group have assimilated all existing data on the production of sweet sorghum and he expects to have some version of an energy crop farm running this summer to demonstrate it the process. “Something will be up and running this summer to show how a grower can make a living on 300 acres for what amounts to the cost of one cotton picker,” says Sharp.

Building on What Works

So what’s all this have to do with precision agriculture? Basically, Sharp sees the University’s mission as making a workable system more effective and efficient.

“From a precision agriculture context, you have a high-value, high-intensity management crop that responds to inputs and vigor decisions like cotton does, and you get real payoff in energy production,” Sharp asserts. “Sweet sorghum sugar content has proven responsive to plant vigor. We have a real interest, both from the standpoint of cropping systems, and from applied precision agriculture systems within the context of energy production. We are moving about as quickly down this trail as we possibly can.”

The best part is, while there is plenty of room for improvement, the development is starting at a good place. “Everything has to be figured out agronomically, but starting out, what we have is good enough,” says Sharp. “Everything will be an improvement beyond this point, but existing practices are good enough to yield profitable outcomes even before we dig into issues such as improved varieties and sugar content.”

Sharp is currently working on getting additional funding to support his research and development activities. “Our next step is to actually establish the working model here,” says Sharp.

As a forward-thinking ag researcher with a keen eye for opportunity, this ethanol concept is just what the doctor ordered for Oklahoma growers. “For us, we’ve got to look at the market we are in, and we do not have cotton in our region — but we do grow good grass here,” he says. “So maybe our future is going to be in energy crops, and it’s up to us to figure out how precision agriculture fits in this energy cropping system. This is really our niche moving forward.”

It’ll also be a project that will help keep his 20 new freshmen that are coming into the precision agriculture course of study next year busy on an exciting new project.

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