What About Willow?

Willows Could Be Next Big Thing for Conservation, Biofuel Feedstock

Four hundred species comprise the willow, or Salix, genus. These fast-growing species have a large root mass and excellent tolerance of poorly drained soils. These properties make willow fascinating to researchers studying its uses. (Progressive Farmer photo courtesy of The Willow Project at SUNY-ESF)

The 440-acre Willow-Witt Ranch sits in a dip among the mountains of Oregon's high country. In the three decades Suzanne Willow has operated her Ashland, Ore., ranch with partner, Lanita Witt, they've offered everything from locally grown meat and dairy products to farm tours and overnight stays. The ranch's livestock are free to graze the pastures, but a break in the fenceline opened up the property to other unwanted grazers.

"We had something like 200 trespass cows from a nearby land lease," Willow says. So, they constructed a fence. And while it kept animals out, the damage had already been wrought. "Those cows destroyed plenty of our wetlands," she says.

Nearly 75 acres of wetlands cut through Willow-Witt Ranch, but the longtime, unwanted cattle foot traffic decimated its stream banks. So the ranchers took action, planting around 2,000 tree willows along their waterways.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

While Willow-Witt Ranch used it to restore wetlands, both the tree and shrub types of willow offer farmers and ranchers a multitude of environmental benefits. For one, in the future, willow could become a significant source of renewable-fuels income. "Our research is to identify the challenges and best-management practices for willows," says Diomy Zamora, researcher with the University of Minnesota (UM) Extension. "It's a relatively new crop that farmers know little about, and we're working to create that awareness.

"Environmentally," he adds, "willow is great at attaining better water quality and reduction of soil erosion." Tree willow, with its tangle of large roots, is adept at holding in stream-bank soils, while shrub willow, with its thick root mat, does a better job of erosion control in running water.

Thickets of willow planted together -- whether along a stream or on marginal cropland -- can provide wildlife habitat and protection, as well as pollination benefits. "Early pollinators [like willow] are attractive to native bees and moths for pollen," says Gary Wyatt, researcher with UM, adding that farmers and landowners may be able to utilize programs from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). "Pollinator benefits may offer supportive dollars to plant willows for early pollinator vegetation," he notes.

A GREENER FUEL?

One way UM Extension researchers are studying willow is by strategically planting rows along roads to decrease snow drifting onto them, thereby increasing driver visibility and safety while reducing transportation maintenance costs. "It's not taking land out of production, and it also provides potentially harvestable biomass after three years," Wyatt says.

Several university studies are examining shrub willow as an alternative fuel. According to the "U.S. Billion-Ton Update" report, by the U.S. Department of Energy, "Short-rotation woody crops such as shrub willow could provide between 126 and 315 million dry tons of biomass for use as biofuels by the year 2030. That would be nearly 30% of the biomass estimated to be available from agricultural and forest sources in 2030."

Willow, in particular, is a contender because the short-rotation woody crop produces harvestable biomass at a rate of about 4 to 5 dry tons per acre each year.

"Since it's a perennial crop, farmers don't have to plant each year, and there are few fertilizer and weed-control requirements after the first year," Wyatt explains. "And, one willow biomass planting can be harvested up to seven times on a three- or four-year rotation."

In addition to the University of Minnesota studies, the largest-scale research project in the U.S. is The Willow Project at State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). New York state has an estimated 1.5 to 2 million acres of poorly drained marginal farmland, and researchers such as Tim Volk are working to put that ground to good use.

The Willow Project has helped landowners plant some 1,200 acres of willow through the USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), a program designed to support growers dedicating acreage to energy crops. Once crops are harvested with a specially designed single-pass cut-and-chip machine, the willow residue chips are transported to two nearby energy facilities, operated by renewable energy company ReEnergy.

"The current end market in northern New York is for power and heat production via ReEnergy's two operating facilities [Lyonsdale and Black River]," Volk says.

ReEnergy is contracted to purchase that willow biomass for 11 years, blending it with forest biomass to produce renewable electricity and heat as researchers continue to study results. The first year of the project allowed ReEnergy to produce about 1,400 megawatt-hours of electricity -- enough to power 130 homes for an entire year.

THE ROAD AHEAD

UM's principal researchers, Wyatt and Zamora, acknowledge there's a long way to go before willow has a widespread biofuel market. "The end-use markets aren't a pretty picture now," Wyatt concedes.

There is reason to remain hopeful, what with state and federal clean-energy investments, and funding from programs such as BCAP. Plus, willow, with its low inputs, environmental benefits and tolerance for marginal land, is a prime candidate for a green fuel. Adds Zamora: "I believe the market will be there eventually."

For now, though, its environmental benefits make willow a solid choice for farm and ranchland. That first planting of willows along the stream banks of Willow-Witt Ranch had only a 50% take, Willow says. "But by our second cutting four years later, USDA had done a little more research, and we planted 4-foot cuttings 2 feet down and edged the willows a little farther into the water," Willow recalls.

They've also filled in eroded gaps with willow cuttings and added more into the streamlets that cross their land. About 40 linear acres along their stream banks are studded with willows, grass and a few shrubs now, and the willow roots lacing through the property's soil holds those soils in place.

"Great grass growth and foliage are coming in the base of those deep diversions, and the willows are holding them," Willow explains. The irony of having the same name as the plants that saved the ranch's soil is not lost on her. "[Willow] has worked beautifully for us."

For More Information:

For more information on The Willow Project, visit www.esf.edu/willow/pubs.htm.

For more on the University of Minnesota studies, visit www.extension.umn.edu/environment/agroforestry.

Information on the U.S. Department of Energy Billion-Ton biomass study is available at http://1.usa.gov/…

(MZT/CZ)