Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wood Chips in the Willows

A century ago, the Syracuse-Rochester corridor in Upstate NY supplied raw material to the basket-making economy through the cultivation of shrub willow. It's funny to think about it now, but this used to be a major industry in the U.S.

I mean, how else would you take your lunch to work?

Something old is new again, as willows are being grown for biofuel in NY.

I recently attended a seminar given by a breeder who's developing biofuel willow varieties for the U.S. Northeast, southeastern Canada and the Upper Midwest.*

It's common folklore that willow stems will sprout roots and leaves if stuck into wet soil. This is one story that's true - and is made good use of by willow growers. Six-foot dormant stems, "whips," are bought from nurseries, cut into 8-10 pieces and stuck into the prepared soil. It's surprisingly expensive to set up a stand ($1000/acre), but lasts 25-30 years.

The young stand is coppiced (cut flush with the ground) during its first winter to encourage bushy, shrub-like growth. It's again cut to the ground every 3-4 years to provide 25' stems for the production of ethanol or wood pellets. Harvesting is done in winter when the (often marshy) soil is frozen, the foliar nutrients have been reabsorbed into the root system and farmers are done using all their machinery to harvest forage corn. The breeder visualizes this system as being especially useful for farmers to make some money off of the swampy, poor quality "back 40" acres - or at least to use wood chips to supply all their own building heat. They've also worked to adapt various cutting implements to commonly used tractors - and had a very cool picture of a forestry implement capable of chewing through 8" boles!

In Sweden, this industry has historically been able to achieve up to 10 harvests per stand planting. The value of willow for wood burning ovens has been real volatile as subsidies and the market changes but there may be a lot of potential here in the States. Chips sell for more money in Europe, but they're cheaper to produce here - so I suppose it could go either way depending on the cost of heating oil. Of course, part of the economy in their favor in Europe are the carbon regulations...

The meat of the talk described their efforts to characterize and cross the many species and natural hybrids of Salix. They've managed to patent some of their best varieties, which they've licensed to a local nurseryman (who already has 100 acres planted!).**

They're recommending that growers plant 6-8 varieties to hedge against pests, pathogens and bad weather, but most growers (here and in Northern Europe) usually end up sticking with only 2 or 3 of their best. It's a little different in Ireland, where wet weather generates big rust epidemics - there they rotate among several varieties with every whip!

Scientists generating whole new industries for enterprising farmers - this is public sector ag research at its best!

* Likewise, poplar would be good for the Pac NW and switchgrass might be best for the Great Plains. A coal-fired power plant is even converting to run on local biofuels in Michigan.
** The website shows some pretty clever additional uses of willow too!


  1. This is fascinating stuff.

    Using wetlands for farming wigs me out a little. But I suppose they aren't draining the wetland. And the practice of harvesting after the ground is frozen is encouraging to hear.

    But I assume these fields would be monocultures, in order to facilitate mechanical harvesting. Bleah. I wish modern growing techniques could be expanded to include multiple crops in the same space, or islands of untouched areas among the cultivated plants, or something. 100 acres of nothing but willow sounds so soulless.

  2. 100 acres is just the nursery! I think the farm plots would usually be a lot smaller. At least it's a native plant that somehwat replicates the natural ecosystem. It's still a monoculture, but hopefully as technology improves, we'll have more options for mixed plantings.

  3. Even though $1000 seems like a high cost, in regards to most perennial crops, its not. The greatest aspect is making use of land that previously was "unfarmable," helping to bring value to the land, farmer, and local economy.

  4. Thanks for the perspective! About how much does an acre of almonds cost?

  5. One native plant by itself isn't an ecosystem. But on the bright side, willow does feed a particularly wide variety of insects, if I remember correctly.

    I would love to see coppice woods in the old European sense be investigated as an alternative to monocultures. Those really did serve the wildlife well.

  6. How'd they do it in Europe that it was good for wildlife?




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