Growing Energy Crops
From price volatility to supply insecurity to unacceptable environmental costs, the challenges associated with fossil fuels are growing. This has led to rising demand for alternate energy sources, as well as a focused effort by energy innovators to find viable new options.
One answer is woody biomass. Long used as an inexpensive, convenient and abundant source of fuel, woody biomass is being rediscovered as a clean, renewable and carbon-neutral energy solution.
In Europe, shrub willow has been grown successfully as an energy crop for decades. Now, after more than 20 years of selective breeding, fast-growing, energy-dense willow hybrids are available in North America, providing landowners with the opportunity to utilize marginal terrain and end-users with a long term, reliable, home grown and cost-effective fuel source.
Many farms have large marginal areas that are underutilized or uneconomic for food crops but well-suited for willow production. Bionera’s professional, experienced team can help you put these areas to productive and economic use.
How much land do I need to establish a willow plantation?
The amount of land required to establish a willow plantation depends on the project and its location.
Where does willow grow best?
Willow varieties have been developed that grow well in many diverse locations across the US and Canada. They tolerate marginal growing conditions, including a wide range of soil acidity and salinity that would otherwise limit conventional agriculture. Willow grows faster in a wet environment, but an annual average rainfall of 20 inches is sufficient. Bionera has the capability to set-up a portable irrigation system that can help provide additional water in the root establishment phase. Permanent irrigation can also be set up, for instance in the case of a wastewater treatment field.
What other growing conditions are required?
The majority of willow crops are grown in a manner similar to row crops such as corn and beans. Like other farm crops, willow requires full light and use of available soil moisture, so weed suppression is critical during the first two years. After that, willow’s robust root system supports rapid early growth that pushes new shoots past weed competition and shades out the ground.
How does willow compare to other crops?
Willow compares favourably to other agricultural crops. Large-scale production is achieved using proven planting and harvesting methods.
Willow is planted in a twin-row system to match conventional row-crop equipment and energy crop harvesting equipment. The system is geared toward efficient harvesting and involves lower labour, machinery and chemical input than traditional agricultural row crops.
Unlike other crops, willow grows for three seasons between harvests, with a steady supply achieved by staggering the planting. After harvesting, willow re-grows vigorously. Soil nutrients can be replaced by recycling ash from combustion, along with modest applications of nitrogen.
This ancient crop system is known as a coppice, or dense thicket of plants, because each plant re-grows vigorously after being cut back.
How is willow harvested?
Willow crops are harvested on a two- or three-year rotation, depending on soil, climate and precipitation. The stems are cut and chipped in a single-pass operation using a forage harvester equipped with a specially designed cutting head. Other harvest options, including billeting and baling, can extend shelf life and provide drying advantages. Mean yields of 6 dry tons per acre per year can be achieved, with many harvests from a single planting to provide a crop life of 25 to 30 years.
While biomass has been used as a fuel source for years, it takes special skills to establish dependable long-term supplies of carbon neutral biomass feedstock. That’s where we come in.
Drawing on over 20 years of industry leading expertise in forest nursery crops, we can help you plan, build and manage large-scale woody biomass plantations designed to supply stable sources of biomass.
We provide all the support you need throughout the growing cycle, including:
Consultation. We listen to your needs, analyze your growing site, then design a custom plantation with selected crop varieties for maximum yield and speed of growth.
Cuttings supply. As a member of the Willow Biomass Group, we provide access to willow varieties that were specifically developed for short-rotation, fast-growing woody biomass crops.
Planting. We can provide one of two styles of tractor-mounted mechanical planters, depending on project size and soil conditions.
Harvesting. For projects up to 300 acres, we can provide a specialized tractor-mounted PTO driven harvester/chipper. For larger projects, we can help you choose the right equipment or connect you with custom operators.
On-site support. We can provide on-site assistance during crop establishment and initial harvesting years to help optimize your operations.
From designing fast-growing plantations and supplying cuttings, to managing and harvesting crops, we’re committed to helping our customers produce clean, green bioenergy.
To learn more about growing willow for energy, contact us today.
Want to learn more about establishing a willow plantation? We recommend the following sites:
How to grow willow
SUNY ESF Willow Project – Economic Analysis Tool
Government assistance programs
USDA Rural Development