YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- A federal program to help farmers in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania grow crops used for biofuels and other sources of energy could result in more than a thousand jobs and millions of dollars of investment to the region, according to a top Obama administration official.
"We've got to start someplace," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "We've got to encourage people to take the risk, to get in the game."
Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told reporters that the federal government's Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP, would be extended to 5,344 acres in Trumbull, Geauga, Ashtabula and Lake counties in Ohio, and Mercer, Erie and Crawford counties in Pennsylvania.
Under the program, the federal government would provide $5.7 million to help farmers grow giant miscanthus, a temperate, perennial grass that can be converted into energy used for electrical power, biofuels and heat.
The grass would be processed at the Aloterra Energy plant in Conneaut.
"It makes sense," Vilsack says. "We become less reliant on an unstable source of oil. We keep those dollars here in America. We create jobs. And we improve bottom lines for farmers by making nonproductive land very productive."
Over time, the program could bring as many as 1,200 new jobs directly and indirectly tied to the project in the seven counties, he said.
Brown said that miscanthus grass can grow in areas unsuited for crops, thereby creating a new revenue stream for family farms. "It requires no pesticides," he said, "less upkeep and produces more energy per ton" than corn used to manufacture fuels such as ethanol.
"These investments mean a brighter, clean energy future, it means a stronger economy in the more rural areas of northeast Ohio," Brown said.
The program provides incentives of up to 75% to farmers who want to start growing the crop; it also makes annual payments to landowners over time.
Three other regions -- two in Missouri, one in Arkansas -- are also designated project sites. Vilsack said the objective is to bring 50,000 acres across the country into the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.
The effort is part of the Obama administration's desire to find new renewable sources of clean energy that would reduce the country's dependence on foreign sources of carbon-based energy, the cabinet secretary noted.
Earlier Wednesday, Brown announced two amendments to a bill before the Senate that would reauthorize funding for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration.
"The EDA is the front door for communities facing sudden and severe economic distress," Brown said.
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