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Perennial Feedstock Focus: Shrub Willow

Noun: Shrub Willow, Salix: A high-yielding perennial crop with a short harvest cycle of only three to four years which can be grown on underutilized land (The Shrub Willow Biomass Producer’s Handbook)

The shrub willow lifecycle begins with a place to plant the seeds. Part of NEWBio's research focuses on the use of land that is undesirable for food production, land that contains "marginal soils". According to Dr. Larry Smart of Cornell and Dr. Michael Jacobson of Penn State, "marginal soils" can be viewed in economic terms; Marginal soils may be agricultural lands that are poorly drained and often wet during times of row crop planting (early spring) and harvesting (late fall). It is difficult to plant annual crops or food crops, such as corn and soybeans, on marginal soils. Overall, there are very high return rates for energy crops, and very low return rates for food crops on these types of soils.

NEWBio is experimenting with shrub willow grown on marginal soils within reclaimed mine lands. Jacobson said NEWBio has three Pennsylvania locations in which shrub willow experiments are occurring: 1. Philipsburg, PA: This is a one-acre trial of 24 cultivars (different species sown next to each other to make growth comparisons) on an acre of land. 2. Rockview, PA: A second-year research plot that is now doing well after losing half of its crop in 2012 due to issues of cutting, storage, and weeds. Replacement seeds were manually re-planted, a time-consuming task. 3. Rock Springs, PA: Penn State's agricultural research farm currently has three acres of shrub willow planted for demonstration purposes.

willow pollination
Willow pollination, Cornell University. Photo credit: L Smart.

According to Jacobson, the biggest barrier to shrub willow success and biomass in general is the lack of awareness and lack of market. Shrub willow can be used for heat, heat and power, and biofuels, as well as pellets, briquettes, food containers, bedding, and absorbents. "The general public is not aware of this," he said. News articles on bioenergy and biomass project implementation are occurring with increasing frequency, particular in education settings. SUNY-ESF recently opened its Gateway Center, which houses a new combined heat-and-power system using biomass pellets and natural gas for 65% of its heating and 20% of its power. [See also "Champions of Bioenergy" videos on the NEWBio website.] To expand the shrub willow market, Jacobson would like to see subsidies for the planting of shrub willow. "If the fossil fuel industry receives tax breaks, the bioenergy industry should as well" Jacobson said. "When farmers are aware of the multiple uses of shrub willow, and how that translates to additional income, then the presence of shrub willow will increase."

Shawn Grushecky, Research Associate and Assistant Director of the Appalachian Hardwood Center atWest Virginia University, echoed Jacobson's sentiment. "More than 200,000 acres are potentially available for planting," said Grushecky, "but much of the acreage is sitting idle, dominated by fescue. It could become a much better asset for the rural communities".

Feedstock improvement is part of enhancing and developing the shrub willow bioenergy market. Larry Smart's primary role with NEWBio is to research and study the genetics of different Salix cultivars. When examining initial trials developed in 2001 across New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, "the top five new cultivars showed a 15% improvement in yield," said Smart. "I am studying the genes that control wood composition, specifically genes involved in the synthesis of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, the main components of woody biomass. The percentage of each of these components and their accessibility to enzymes that are needed to release the sugars from cellulose and hemicellulose are key traits for conversion to biofuel."

willow site in poland
Jan Bocian, President of Polbio and partner of European Wilow Breeding in Poland, amidst a two-year-old 'Inger' willow stand. Photo credit: L Smart.

Smart elaborated, "These and other studies of wood properties will allow for improved parents for crosses and then selection [of] the best progeny to produce the strongest shrub willow breeds for bioenergy and biofuel production." Smart and his co-researchers "are very close to releasing the first draft of the willow genome, which is going to give us tremendous tools to advance willow breeding programs and gain a better understanding of the genetic basis for many of the important features of willow".

Both Jacobson and Smart visited sites in Eastern Europe in 2013 to learn more about biofuel crop production. As described by Smart, "Poland has some of the largest acreage of willow in Europe (around 19,000 acres), together with Sweden (about 16,000 hectares). The EU has a target of 11% of total energy coming from renewables by 2020." Eastern Europe has significant challenges to overcome and reach that target, partly due to government commitment and the economic recession. Jacobson and Smart are hoping to apply knowledge gained from examination of land use and prices, farmer adoption methods, risk aversion, and overall bioenergy markets.

"We have a long-term vision of seeing 1 million acres of willow planted in North America," said Smart. "We are a long way away from that."

Story credit: Rachel Passmore, Penn State Class of 2014 and NEWBio Intern

NEWBio (consortium members below) is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68005-19703 
from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
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