Farm Horizons, February 1997

All that glitters may not be cash from pulp wood


All that glitters may not be cash from pulp woodBy Andrea Vargo

Imagine a tree that grows so fast, it matures to harvestable size in a mere 10 years.

Sounds impossible, right? Well, it's fact, and it's happening right here in Minnesota.

A newly-formed research consortium, the Minnesota Hybrid Poplar Research Cooperative (MHPRC) has joined the efforts of public research organizations, university researchers and forest products industry experts.

Each year in Minnesota alone, nearly three million cords of wood are turned into paper and oriented strandboard. The hope is that MHPRC can provide a supplemental fiber source, the hybrid poplar, to the industry.

The project also positions the hybrid poplar as an alternative agricultural crop for Minnesota farmers.

The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) claims that the hybrid poplar is a sound economic project that is backed by years of experience.

Although this sounds good, caution is urged by scientist Ed Wene from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).

He said that contrary to MHPRC's prediction of $300 per acre to plant the poplars, it is really closer to $400.

First, a site evaluation and soil tests have to be done.

Then the land must be sprayed for grasses and weeds and plowed down in the fall.

A crew has to be hired to hand plant the trees, so the contracting has to be handled for the right timing and conditions.

Proper storage and maintenance of the trees before planting is critical.

The trees are planted on eight foot centers and require cultivation until they canopy and choke out the weeds. So initial cost for all this may keep some landowners from planting the trees.

The good news is that there can be some cost sharing on CRP land; the bad news will come if the land ever has to be cleared for farming crops again.

AURI conducted a meeting Feb. 19 in Sauk Centre to inform growers about the income potential of intensively cultivated hybrid poplars in central Minnesota.

Speakers told how CRP land could be tapped to grow the trees on marginal land.

Wene sees a problem with this approach. The better the land, the better the crop of any kind, he said.

Coarse textured soils, a long way from the water table, won't produce good trees.

The location of the land is crucial, said Wene. "You need to be close to the pulp mill,or transportation costs will eat into your profit.

Said Wene, "It is difficult to predict the sale prices of the wood, since we don't have a good history of information to rely on."

But, it would appear that the fiber industry will pay more than the power industry, he said.

AURI has planted 3,000 acres in cooperation with the University of Minnesota Crookston and and will do further research on the trees, including their potential to regrow from the cut stumps.

"The advantages . . . of the trees as a cash crop . . . remain to be seen," said Wene.

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