Believed to have sprung from the Indian subcontinent, Arundo has spread around the globe. Europeans have been using it for centuries in the production of reeds for woodwind instruments.
Like kudzu, which came to the United States as part of Japan's exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Arundo arrived here in the mid- to late 19th century. And also like kudzu, Arundo was once touted as a perfect crop to help stem erosion. In California and Texas, farmers, ranchers and government workers enthusiastically planted it along waterways and drainage ditches. Shallow rooted, the canes would break off and move downstream, starting new stands.
Arundo has become "naturalized" in 25 warmer-weather states, according to a USDA weed risk analysis released in June.
In banning it, California, Nevada and Texas have said the plant crowds out native species and consumes precious water.
The Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council lists it as a "Significant Threat." Virginia officials have labeled it "moderately invasive." The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has categorized giant reed as "occasionally invasive." But that might change if it were to be promoted as a commercial crop, says Elizabeth Byers, a vegetation ecologist with the agency's wildlife diversity unit.
"I certainly wouldn't want to see any invasive species used as biomass," she says. "Because they can escape."
North Carolina is keeping an eye on Arundo, but the folks in Oxford say past need not be prologue.
Earlier this fall, Chemtex International christened the world's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the northwest Italian city of Crescentino. Turning inedible biomass into sugars, the company hopes to produce up to 20 million gallons of fuel a year.
By mid-2013, Chemtex wants to break ground on a like-sized plant that would employ 67 people in North Carolina. It has set its sights on the little city of Clinton, in the heart of hog country.
David Crouse, a soil scientist at North Carolina State University, says energy grass production and the Tar Heel State are "a logical match" — depending on which grass it is.
Spread across the state's coastal plain are about 100,000 acres of so-called sprayfields, onto which industrial farming operations pump millions of gallons of hog and chicken waste per year. In order to comply with federal clean water regulations for runoff of nutrients such as nitrogen, many of those fields are already planted with energy grasses, chiefly coastal Bermudagrass.
In terms of yield, Arundo far outpaces the competition — up to 20 dry tons per acre, versus 3 to 6 tons for Bermuda. So planting Arundo would require far less land to supply Chemtex's fiber needs. The problem is, the fields' owners also need to worry about absorbing the nitrogen in the manure and the jury is still out as to whether Arundo would be a good fit.
"If it's not, it's not where we need to be on the swine farms," Crouse says.
Brake and his colleagues in Oxford are trying to figure that out.
On a farm a few miles from the biofuels center, a dense patch of what look like anorexic palm trees waves in the light autumn breeze. They tower over the 6-foot-2 farming director.
Brake planted this quarter-acre plot of Arundo donax in 2010. He's been applying fertilizer at four different rates — zero to 120 pounds per acre — to gauge the plants' nutritional needs, as well as their ability to absorb nitrogen.
Even in the tightly packed, red-clay soil, they have thrived. Brake steps into the thicket and struggles to wrap his arms around a clump.
"It's about maybe 3 foot in diameter," he says.
So far, yields from North Carolina test plots have averaged from 5.8 dry tons per acre at the Oxford site to just over 11 tons in the sandy loam soils in which most Chemtex suppliers would be planting, though NCSU soil scientist Ron Gehl notes these are not yet "mature stands."