Jury still out on giant cane, researchers say

Mitch Lies/Capital Press Scott Russell, a project manager at Portland General Electric, displays a stalk of giant cane, or Arundo donax, growing in a field near the Port of Morrow. PGE is experimenting with using the cane to replace coal as a fuel source for its Boardman, Ore., power plant.


Capital Press

BOARDMAN, Ore. -- Fears that arundo donax poses a threat as an invasive weed appear misplaced, according to a farmer and a researcher who are growing the crop.

But the jury is still out on whether the crop can generate a profit for Columbia Basin growers.

As Vern Frederickson starts his second harvest of the perennial crop, he's expecting 10 to 12 tons an acre, well below the 20 tons an acre Oregon State University Extension agent Don Horneck believes growers need to turn a profit.

The good news is the Boardman grower believes the crop will continue to increase its biomass production in years ahead. But he wonders whether it will be able to compete against corn, potatoes, onions, alfalfa and wheat in Columbia Basin rotations.

As for concerns the crop poses a risk as an invasive species, Frederickson said that fears are misplaced.

In the Columbia Basin, arundo donax doesn't flower, he said, so can't spread by seed. And in two years of growing the crop, he has yet to see it spread outside where it was planted.

"It hasn't tried to move outside of where it was originally planted," Frederickson said.

Further, he said, arundo donax, or giant cane, has been for sale in nurseries in the area for years.

"If it was going to be an issue, it would be an issue," he said.

Arundo donax is a species of concern in the Sacramento Delta, where it was planted for erosion control along streambanks. The species subsequently spread throughout the area.

Environmentalists are concerned it could become an invasive species here, as well.

Horneck, who planted the crop at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center in 2011, said he sees little evidence the crop poses a risk in the Columbia Basin.

"Everything we've done indicates it's not as invasive as everyone says," he said. "The risk of it escaping is not as severe as we were afraid."

Portland General Electric is looking at the crop as a possible replacement for energy production at its coal-fired power plant in Boardman, which it has agreed to close by 2020.

Whether giant cane can be a profitable crop for growers, however, is yet to be decided.

"In order for this crop to fit, it needs to crank out some biomass, and crank it out pretty quick," Horneck said. "I'm not ready to declare the crop a success or a failure."

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