Two buzzwords commonly circulated among agribusiness, academic, political and opinion leaders in Iowa these days are biotechnology and value-added agriculture. Ever since the fall-out from the 1980s farm crisis, the public and private sectors in the Hawkeye state have launched efforts to diversify the state’s economy and find creative ways to extract a greater return on Iowa’s abundant natural resources and raw commodities.

While opportunity knocks for Iowa to grow ownership in the life sciences and information technology sectors, a group of entrepreneurial farmers in south-central Iowa didn’t wait for a written invitation to branch out into the world of renewable energy.

Area farmers were sitting on thousands of acres of marginal farmland that simply couldn’t sustain corn and soybean production year after year. Many removed the land from production entirely under the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program. However, native grasses do thrive here and a local group started researching ways to use it. A decade ago, they formed a partnership with the local coal-fired electricity plant. Today these same farmers are looking to turn their land into productive acres with a new cash crop that may have a significant impact on their financial futures. Finding alternative uses for switchgrass is an emerging success story with far-reaching benefits.

The power plant late last year began burning clean-burning switchgrass mixed with coal to test its feasibility and energy output. Thanks to the wonders of 21st century technology, it is possible to convert these native grasses into electricity.

So today the farmland in south-central Iowa is being polished into an environmental and economic jewel. It’s good for the environment because switchgrass helps deter erosion and chemical run-off. And studies show that biomass crops could produce between $2 to $5 billion in additional farm income and supply as much as seven percent of the total electricity generated in the United States. By 2010, the federal government has set a national goal to triple the nation’s use of bioenergy.

As a federal lawmaker, I strongly support efforts to expand alternative sources of energy. From ethanol to biomass and wind energy, I have fought for favorable tax treatment from the federal government to help spur research and development. As incoming chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, I will continue to support incentives that will expand renewable fuels development and production. Specifically, I’m drafting legislation that would allow existing coal-fired electricity plants to qualify for biomass tax credits.

Why should the federal government promote biomass? Consider the current electricity shortage in California, the sky-high prices at the pump throughout the last year and the soaring prices of home heating fuel and natural gas this winter. Elected officials have an obligation to consumers across the country to accelerate the nation’s production of homegrown, clean-burning, renewable sources of energy.

Rural America can lead the way. The biomass project in southern Iowa is a shining example. It’s a win-win-win situation. It will boost economic development at the local level, enhance the standards of living for area residents through cleaner soil, air and water and revitalize the rural-based economy.

And the folks down in Lucas, Wayne, Appanoose and Monroe counties just may be scratching the surface. Research is underway to test other alternative uses for switchgrass, including paper, fiberboard, mulch, and logs. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well lo and behold, I’d say the folks involved with the Chariton Valley Biomass project have landed on a real gem.