Willow power topic of upcoming seminar

Colin MacLean
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Pilot project has been studying viability of willow production for biomass fuel

A stand of willow shrubs are harvested from a test field on P.E.I.

So apparently willow bushes can be used by farmers as biomass fuel to help heat farms — who knew?

Well, Tyler Wright, soil and water engineer at the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, knows all about it and he'd like to share that information with anyone who would like to know.

He’s inviting anyone who wants to hear more about willow production to a half-day seminar in Charlottetown on Feb. 28.

“What we need to do is find a farmer who might be interested in exploring it further, I think that’s where we’ll get some real hard numbers. That's really part of the reason for this session next week — to see what the interest would be in exploring this type of work,” said Wright.

Since 2006 Wright has been part of an ongoing pilot project here on P.E.I. designed to test the viability of introducing willow production to Island farmers.

At that time there was a lot of local talk, and government interest in, biofuels, explained Wright.

There was also discussion about what to do with land that farmers can’t use for row crop production; such as near waterways or in other sensitive areas.

The idea of the willow project was to combine both those topics, said Wright.

Three organizations teamed up for the pilot: the P.E.I. Soil and Crop Improvement Association, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada and the Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

Typically when people think about willows they think about trees, he said, but the species being researched is actually a quick growing shrub hybrid that can grow upwards of 15-feet-high.

Farmers would plant these shrubs in sensitive areas and harvest them every few years for wood chips. They're good for heating because they have a high heat value — the closest comparison would be chips made from hard wood like beach or maple, said Wright.

But these willows live for about 25 years and keep growing back; they can be harvested about once every two years. They grow about 10 times faster than a hard wood tree, he said.

There’s also an added benefit to planting these willows in sensitive areas.

“If there’s any excess nitrogen or phosphorus in the landscape it's good at sucking that up and sequestering it — basically holding it in the plant material, as opposed to it going into the water table,” said Wright.

A couple of willow crops have already been produced here on the Island, he added, so they've done their preliminary research.

The upcoming meeting is all about seeing if there is enough interest in expanding the project - and to help inform the public.

“We certainly have a good handle on the agronomics ... but we don’t have all the answers, that’s part of why we're having this session next week. Just to show what we know,” he said.

Everyone is welcome to the seminar; which will be at the Charlottetown Research Station, 440 University Ave., room A and B, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There is no fee for attending, but because of limited space anyone interested in attending should pre-register by noon on Feb. 26.

That can be done by calling 902-675-4640 or sending an e-mail to Margaret.pasi@pei.aibn.com.

Organizations: Department of Agriculture, P.E.I. Soil and Crop Improvement Association, Charlottetown Research Station

Geographic location: Iceland, Charlottetown

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  • Anthony Adams
    February 25, 2013 - 17:36

    What a wonderful idea!