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Al-Pac Cashes in on Hybrid Poplar Research

That's the main reason why Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) launched its hybrid poplar farming program in 2000....


February 1, 2005
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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That’s the main reason why Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac) launched its hybrid poplar farming program in 2000.

What gave Al-Pac cause for optimism with its program was the amount of research that had already been conducted by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) on various types of hybrid poplar suitable for north central Alberta. It has been researching various types of hybrid poplar as part of its agricultural shelterbelt program for over a half century through its research facility at Indian Head, SK. Among PFRA’s objective was to breed fast-growing and hardy poplar clones for use by farmers as shelterbelts to help combat wind erosion and moisture loss.

“The fact that we have shelterbelt trees that are hybrid poplars growing in farm fields in this area has given us a lot of information that would normally have taken decades to get,” said company geneticist and poplar farm research coordinator, Dr. Barb Thomas. “So we are confident about the survival and performance potential of the trees growing in our area for use in our tree farming operations.” The two hybrid poplar types Al-Pac found most suitable were Walker and Jackii.

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Thomas said the selected species had to be well adapted to the area, capable of achieving growth targets of one metre each year for the first four years, and be flexible enough to perform in a variety of local environments.

Al-Pac poplar farm specialist, Chuck Kaiser, said the pulp mill had to find a new, reliable fibre source due to productivity improvements at the mill. Al-Pac now produces about 1950 air dried tonnes of pulp per day, which is 300 tonnes more than when the plant began production 10 years ago. This increased production is largely due to improvements in machinery and technology, as well as implementation of employee initiatives.

Right now, the mill is filling the void by purchasing wood on the open market from sources such as private landowners. However, over the long term, management knew that it needed to find another fibre source. Harvesting more wood from its Forest Management Area (FMA) was not an option as the company’s current annual allowable cut is balanced right at the point where harvest and regeneration is sustainable.

Shortly after the mill opened, the company launched a research program to investigate the commercial potential of hybrid poplar. Dr. Thomas has headed up that initiative. By 2000, Al-Pac felt that it had acquired enough knowledge to launch an operational hybrid poplar farming program.

The company expects to harvest its first crop of hybrid poplar by 2020. Ultimately, Al-Pac’s hybrid poplar farms will contribute up to 15 % of the mill’s fibre supply.

The company plans to plant 1200 hectares of hybrid poplar per year on land leased primarily from local farmers. Over 3300 hectares have already been planted, consisting of 600 hectares owned by Al-Pac immediately adjacent to the pulp mill and the rest consisting of leased land located within 200 kilometres of the mill.

Kaiser said there is no reason why other companies faced with the same dilemma couldn’t follow the same model. He added that many already have, based on research and commercial hybrid poplar farms established by forest companies in the American Northwest as far back as the 1970s. Companies like Potlatch began to realize the potential of hybrid poplar as a faster growing pulp supply, even though the research involving hybrid poplar at the time was geared more toward helping the United States find alternative fuel sources. Researchers were investigating hybrid poplar as a potential feedstock to produce ethanol.

Al-Pac had three limiting factors in terms of selecting appropriate hybrid poplar species. The first was the area’s short growing season in combination with the weather, which can vary from 28 degrees Celsius in summer to minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter. The second limitation was moisture, as the area only gets 30 to 50 centimetres of moisture per year. It also fluctuates from year to year. Lastly, the area’s farmland has very shallow depths of topsoil.

Another limiting factor was the constraints placed on Al-Pac by the provincial government. Being a foreign-owned company, the company needed to receive an exception to a law that prohibits foreign-owned companies from leasing land in the province. The government granted an exception to allow Al-Pac to plant hybrid poplar on up to 25,000 hectares, but it could only do so on class 3, 4 and 5 soil. This was to preserve the best quality soil for traditional agriculture crops.

Because so much quality research had already been done on hybrid poplar performance, Al-Pac could focus a lot of its research on developing silvicultural best practices. Researchers have produced a working manual for use by those responsible for the operational program that identifies the characteristics of different clones, the proportions of clones to be used on the landbase, fertilizer use, and various methods to promote early establishment and maximizing growth. It is updated regularly.

Sites are selected primarily by soil type, avoiding areas that have too much sand or peat. All site preparation is conducted in the fall prior to planting in the spring, and involves the common farming practice of spraying a desiccant like Round Up to kill hay, grass, and any volunteer growth from previous crops. Then a breaking disc digs 15 to 18 centimetres down into the soil.

“We want the ground to be as black and weed-free as we can,” said Kaiser.

In spring, a machine passes over the cultivated land and marks an ‘X’ where each cutting should be planted, in a pattern so that each tree will take in a space measuring three metres by three metres. Hand planting is done during the month of June, and because the ground is trash-free, each planter can plant about 3000 cuttings per day.

For the first four years, each site is mechanically disked between the rows for weed control until the branches create a crown closure. This provides natural shading and suppresses weed growth. Height measurements are taken each year for the first four years, with height and girth measurements taken at year four, 10 and 15. Depending on how well the site has met growth objectives, it will be harvested anywhere from 18 to 25 years after it has been planted.

Participating farmers receive $61.75 per hectare for 20 years once they sign on to leasing their land for a hybrid poplar crop, and Al-Pac is considering the addition of an annual inflationary factor based on feedback it has gotten from the farming community. Farmers also have the option of taking on the mechanical weed control contract during the first four years of growth. Kaiser said that local farmers have reacted cautiously to what Al-Pac has proposed

“Since this is a new program, everybody on the block wanted to see if we could walk the talk,” he said. “That’s why we planted all the land around our mill site first, so we could show them what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.”

He emphasized that it is not for everyone.

“It’s still economically driven,” he said. “The average age right now of a farmer in this particular part of the world is about 60 years old, and if their children aren’t really interested in farming and they are looking for another way to diversify, this might be a way to transition out of farming.” He explained that farmers can look after weed control for four years as an extra income, continue to receive an income off the land once they retire, and then turn it over to their heirs as they grow older or pass away.

A steady retirement income is what 72-year-old farmer, Albert Happner, had in mind when he leased 60 hectares of his land to Al-Pac as part of its hybrid poplar farm program about two years ago.

“I’m guaranteed what I’m going to get,” he said. He had been renting out his land to other local farmers, but said they were not prepared to pay what Al-Pac offered him, citing a variety of excuses.

“It was either grasshoppers, or drou
ght, or too much rain or not enough rain,” said Happner. “I didn’t get paid accordingly. Now I have no complaining.”

He added that a number of other farmers in the area have contacted him about how they can participate in the program. Some of their reasons relate to the extra expenses that farmers now face with the bulldozing of local grain elevators and closure of a number of local farm dealerships.

“All my neighbours around here are hauling their grain 175 kilometres to an elevator and you have to go 200 kilometres to buy parts for their farm equipment,” Happner said. “I know one farmer who has leased 282 hectares to Al-Pac, and there’s a few more guys thinking about the same thing.”

Some farmers are participating to supplement the income they are earning from regular crop rotation. Others who are working off the farm and typically rent their land out, see this as another way to earn regular rental income from their property.

That’s the case with Kerri and Dennis Michalczuk. They farm part-time, rent out some land, and also work off the farm. Dennis said he occasionally found it difficult to collect the rent if the renting farmer was experiencing financial difficulty. Both he and his wife like the idea of a guaranteed rental rate. Furthermore, Kerri has gained extra income by taking on the four-year mechanical weed control contract on the 60 hectares they have agreed to plant into hybrid poplar.

“Planting hybrid poplar is definitely a way for farmers to gain a regular income from farmland that is perhaps marginal and not producing consistently from a conventional agriculture crop,” added Dennis.

Al-Pac has assured local active farmers that it will not outbid them by paying exorbitant lease rates. It established its lease rate after conducting an extensive study of average rental prices being paid by local farmers.

Another concern expressed by some local farmers was that Al-Pac would be taking productive farmland away from producing traditional crops and returning it back into a near natural state. However, of the 15 million hectares available to the company within 200 kilometres of the mill, the 25,000 hectares slated for hybrid poplar farms represents only .5 % of the total available landbase.

Kaiser said he expects a snowball effect once the word begins circulating in coffee shops about how positive the experience has been for those participating in the hybrid poplar farming program. He anticipates that there will be plenty of farmers wanting to plant hybrid poplar on some of their land. Also, with BSE causing a significant income reduction for some cattle farmers, more have been phoning about planting some of their pasture into hybrid poplar instead.

Al-Pac’s hybrid poplar farming initiative will pay several environmental dividends. For example, it will put some marginal farmland that probably should never been cleared in the first place, back into a treed state. Accumulated leaf litter will put nutrients back into the soil. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that would typically have been applied to that farmland in a traditional crop rotation will be drastically reduced. Furthermore, the poplar farms are attracting more wildlife, which is a bit of a problem because deer in particular like to feed on poplar plants. It is also helping Al-Pac neutralize its impact on the environment based on the standards set out in the Kyoto Protocol.

“As of 2008, we will be carbon neutral as far as balancing off our emissions with our tree planting program,” said Kaiser. “Anything after that could possibly be put on the market for carbon trading.”

Thomas said the hybrid poplar research program is only one of three research streams at Al-Pac involving hybrids. The company is developing even more hybrid poplar clones to improve on specific growth, fibre quality, and hardiness thresholds. It has also launched a hybrid aspen research program, which has a great deal of importance to the pulp mill since its main feedstock is aspen.