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Shrub Willow To Power Maple Syrup Production

CNY high school demonstration site for shrub willow bioenergy crops

VERONA, NY - A central NY high school is poised to expand its award-winning program in agriculture education to include a demonstration trial of shrub willow bioenergy crops. Researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) planted a 2.5-acre field of shrub willow adjacent to Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School on Beacon Light Road in Verona on Wednesday, May 13. The trial will show the potential of shrub willow to grow on marginal agricultural land and provide wood chips that can be used as fuel in power plants, for heating, and as a feedstock for cellulosic biofuels.

"VVS is the perfect site for a long-term demonstration of the growth potential of shrub willow varieties we've produced in our breeding program - it is easily accessible and in a region of the State where there is great interest in renewable energy technology and plenty of land suitable to grow willow" says Dr. Larry Smart, Associate Professor in Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY-ESF and the project leader.

The field was planted using whips - long pieces of dormant willow stem harvested from nursery beds - that are cut into small pieces and pushed into the soil by a specially-designed willow planter. The whips are produced by Double A Willow, which offers willow varieties developed at SUNY-ESF for sale to growers and homeowners through their web site (www.doubleawillow.com). "Double A is excited to be a part of this pioneering renewable energy development that is taking place throughout New York State and the country," said Dennis Rak, who owns and operates the Fredonia-based nursery with his wife Sue.

At the end of this growing season, the stems will be cut back (coppiced), which will stimulate vigorous regrowth of multiple new stems next spring. When it is harvested for the first time three years later, the wood chips can be burned in a wood- or coal-fired power plant or used to make cellulosic biofuels -- but VVS ag teacher Keith Schiebel is interested in using the chips as a renewable fuel for the maple syrup operation his students manage. "Our students recognize that we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels as soon as possible, and willow looks like a good option for producers in this area", says Schiebel. Smart is also eager to help engage the next generation of farmers in producing renewable energy and adds, "Keith has been a tremendous partner in helping to get this demo planted and is a leader among ag teachers in NY and nationally." Once established, a willow field is harvested on a three-year cycle, with the plants resprouting after every harvest, for more than 20 years.

The trial will not only involve the students at VVS, but will provide an example of willow crops in cultivation that local growers and biofuels companies can see in person. "There is great potential to grow bioenergy crops in Oneida County, but farmers need to be confident that the system works before they commit to planting the crop and companies need enough producers to be assured of sufficient fuel or feedstock supply", says Mary Wrege, a renewable energy educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. She is excited to help with the demo trial, because she says "we need to break this chicken and egg dilemma and encourage investment to spur our rural economy." Wrege sees opportunities for workforce training to meet the needs of future renewable projects in the area.

The project is funded by a grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute to Smart and SUNY-ESF colleagues Tim Volk and Larry Abrahamson. For more information about the Institute, visit www.nyfvi.org.

Located in Syracuse, SUNY-ESF is the leader in renewable energy research in New York State through its work on the use of willow biomass for fuel (www.esf.edu/willow). It has been active in willow research since 1986 and together with collaborators is establishing a number of yield trials across North America to test dozens of new varieties in different climates and soils. SUNY-ESF researchers have also cooperated with Case-New Holland to develop a specialized harvesting system based on a New Holland forage harvester.

Double A Willow is the first commercial nursery licensed by the Research Foundation of SUNY to sell new, high-yielding varieties of shrub willows developed at SUNY-ESF. Owners Dennis and Sue Rak have over 20 years of experience in successfully producing and selling high-quality grapevines to homeowners, box stores, and vineyard owners throughout the United States. Since 2005, they have been planting ever expanding acreage of willow nursery beds and now have capacity to produce more than 12 million cuttings annually. For more information visit www.doubleawillow.com.

For further information, contact Dr. Larry Smart (315-470-6737, lbsmart@esf.edu), Mary Wrege (315-736-3394, mpw57@cornell.edu), or Keith Schiebel (315-829-2520, kschiebel@vvsschools.org).