The USDA recently announced incentives available for the establishment of biomass crops. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), reauthorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, provides incentives for forest landowners as well as farmers to grow new sources of biomass energy products.
According to Virginia Green, USDA Farm Services Agency, Conservation Specialist for New York, growers in a nine county region — Oneida, Oswego, Franklin, Jefferson, Herkimer, St. Lawrence, Lewis, Clinton and Essex — were eligible to enroll acreage for shrub willow production. The “distinct geographical areas” for the shrub willow project were selected due to their proximity to the ReEnergy LLC bioenergy plants, located in Fort Drum, Lyonsdale, and Chatequgay.
ReEnergy LLC representative Sarah Boggess explained that the Fort Drum plant will be producing renewable energy for the next 20 years, under a contract with the Federal government. While forest residue provides the primary feedstock, shrub willow acreage provided 1,200 tons YTD total beginning with the 2012 BCAP program, harvested from the 2,500 acres currently planted in shrub willow. The 2015 program, set to enroll an additional 1,250 acres, will provide 350-400 additional shrub willow acres to the plant.
Green further explained the BCAP requirements for the shrub willow program. Aside from being within the nine eligible counties, the land can be cropland, pastureland or already established with shrub willow. The rental rates on the land are determined based on the three predominant soil types. For pasture, the Marginal Pasture Land (MPL) rental rate applies. All lands enrolled receive a 25 percent incentive over the established rental rates. The per acre rate ranges from $32 – $71 in the eligible counties, she said.
There is a 50 percent cost share for establishment, up to $500 per acre, or $750 per acre for socially-disadvantaged growers. No payment is made in the third year, when the willow is harvested and sold to ReEnergy LLC. Production requirements included in the cost share include: the establishment of a cover crop after burn down, if applicable; grass cover in traffic lanes and row ends, coppicing of one year shrub growth; rock removal if needed; and the lime, fertilizer or weed control necessary to establish the crop. Cost share for ongoing maintenance, harvest, storage or transport to the biomass facility is not available.
Shrub willow production
Shrub willow research has been conducted at State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) since 1986, Nathan Sleight, student researcher with the Willow Project, said. Shrub willow is not the same as tree willow, and has some very distinct characteristics which make it extremely well suited as a renewable energy crop.
Research at SUNY-ESF has focused on crop production, breeding, yield, economics, best management practices, environmental sustainability and the commercialization potential of the crop, Sleight said. The characteristics of the species which make it conducive to renewable energy production in the Northeast include: ease of propagation and establishment; fast growth; the ability to resprout numerous times; limited pest, disease or fertility issues; and its compatibility for common agricultural practices.
Currently there are 1,150 acres of shrub willow planted in Central and Northern New York State, Sleight said, and about 400 acres are harvested each year. The acreage is located close to the existing bioenergy plants, because “we don’t want to have a large transport distance for it, because that will increase the cost.”
The willow is harvested in three-year cycles. First, the soil is plowed or disced prior to planting. Specialized planters cut willow whips to 10 inches, and plant them in one pass. Willow is spring planted, at the rate of 5,500 plants per acre, and a targeted survival rate of 75 percent.
At one year, the growth is coppiced — cut back to the base — to encourage increased stem production. After that, maintenance needs are few through to the harvesting of the third year’s growth. At this point, the shrub is about 25 feet in height, and will produce 15 dry tons per acre at harvest. Harvesting equipment, via a partnership with New Holland, is available for rent.
SUNY-ESF has also produced a cash flow model for shrub willow production, available at www.esf.edu/willow .
There are several variations on the model available, including one which includes the current 2015 BCAP cost-share, and one with best management practices resulting in the highest calculated yields. The payback is between seven and 10 years, with the cost of production between $20 and $25 per ton.
Environmental benefits of shrub willow include its carbon neutral life cycle, reduction of soil erosion and runoff because of its perennial nature, its ability to thrive on marginal lands or lands that have been idle, and its wildlife habitat impact. There are estimated to be 20,000 acres of herbaceous or shrubby ground available within a 25 mile radius of the bioenergy plants that could potentially be tapped for shrub willow production, Sleight said.
Although enrollment is now closed for the NY BCAP Project this year, the potential for shrub willow biomass production remains high in the region. The BCAP program is meant to provide an incentive for farmers to convert lands into shrub willow biomass production, allowing a steady supply of biomass feedstock to the nearby renewable energy plants, creating jobs, keeping farmers viable, and protecting environmental resources through stewardship.