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Project Aims To Put Unproductive Farmland Back To Use

MEXICO, NY – Eileen Yager’s old farmland on Dunlap Road in Mexico is choked with tall grass and weeds these days.

But, in a few years, it will be the site of a crop of a new, renewable, source of energy.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, right, chats with Eileen Yager Thursday afternoon.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, right, chats with Eileen Yager Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday (July 5), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New York senator to serve on the Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, met with central and northern New York farmers interested in participating in growing willow shrubs for renewable energy fuel.

“Today’s a great day because we’re talking about the future and some opportunities for agriculture and finding opportunities to open up for farmers in renewable markets,” Gillibrand told the crowd of about two dozen gathered on the former beef cattle farm. “In this case we’re talking about willows. But we have a lot of opportunities with crops we can grow in New York.”

Last month, Senator Gillibrand helped secure $4.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the creation of a new Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) project in New York.

SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and ReEnergy, a renewable energy company based in Latham, are partnering on this project where willows will be grown on marginal farmland throughout the region and used for fuel.

Tim Volk, SUNY-ESF senior research scientist, presents the senator with some of the willow shoots that will be planted.
Tim Volk, SUNY-ESF senior research scientist, presents the senator with some of the willow shoots that will be planted.

The BCAP project area seeks to enroll up to 3,500 acres in fast growing shrub willow to generate more than 100 megawatts of electricity.

“The shrub willow, that we’re talking about today, is a much better crop. It is very energy efficient, has a very short grow time and actually turns out to be a terrific source for ethanol,” Gillibrand said.

Jim Barber, USDA state executive director, explained how the project would work.

The willow shrubs would be grown on fallow farmland in Oswego County as well as eight other counties and harvested for fuel. They can be harvested multiple times from each planting; and they are cut every three years.

It will help farmers and landowners transition unproductive crop land and under-utilized pasture land, he said.

Participants would enter into an 11-year contract with the USDA Farm Service Agency. The goal in New York is to enrolling 3,500 acres in shrub willow production by the sign-up deadline of Sept. 14, Barber said.

The farmers will be paid rent and initial start-up costs. Here, in Oswego County, the annual rental payment would be about $28 to $30 per acre and the cost-sharing for plant material, land preparation and planting would be up to $741 per acre, he said.

Jim Barber, USDA state executive director, explains how the project would work. Looking on are Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, right, and owner of the farmland Eileen Yager.
Jim Barber, USDA state executive director, explains how the project would work. Looking on are Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, right, and owner of the farmland Eileen Yager.

During the harvest years, participants will be paid by ReEnergy for delivery of the shrub willow biomass.

The project will have far-reaching impact on the local landowners, Barber said, adding the program “is one more example of how the Obama Administration and Senator Gillibrand support increasing the production of renewable, home-grown fuel.”

New York is one of only three states currently participating in the program. Nationwide, nine more areas have been approved.

In New York, it will generate more than 100 megawatts of electricity and is estimated to create 144 jobs directly and indirectly, Barber pointed out.

Larry Richardson, CEO and one of the co-founders of ReEnergy, said they own and operate biomass plants in three states, “in Maine, Connecticut; but most importantly today, here in upstate New York.”

“In fact, 100 of our 300 megawatts are located here in New York with one facility in Lyons Falls, in Lewis County, another in Chateaugay, up in Franklin County and our newest facility, a 60-megawatt facility that is inside the fence at Fort Drum, in Jefferson County.”

They are in the process of converting the Jefferson County plant from coal to biomass; it has been shut down for more than two years, he added.

Larry Richardson, CEO and one of the co-founders of ReEnergy, describes how the process would work as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand listens.
Larry Richardson, CEO and one of the co-founders of ReEnergy, describes how the process would work as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand listens.

“We will be the user of the product, once it is grown and harvested,” Richardson said. “We will be entering into long-term contracts … for this material once harvested.”

They have conducted trial use of the material at Lyons Falls and the results were very positive, he said.

Tim Volk, SUNY-ESF senior research scientist, said they have been doing research on this for more than 25 years.

“We hope that this is the beginning of something larger. That this would bring enough familiarity to this crop in New York and then there would be other opportunities to expand it further and make it a part of the agricultural infrastructure here,” he said. “We’re very excited to put marginal land back into production and cerate jobs here in the local economy and it is a crop that has a lot of environmental benefits.”

It is a CO2 neutral crop; basically it is taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the biomass – “and folks like Re-Energy will buy it and turn it into energy and the CO2 goes back to the atmosphere and the next crop is out there growing on the landscape at takes it up again,” Dr. Volk said.

In the next week to 10 days there will be announcements of public informational meetings that will take place in Northern New York, he said.

The target is up to 3,500 acres for the planting with about half in the first year and half the following year, Dr. Volk said.

“Once the farmers learn about this opportunity, I think it will be great,” the senator said. “These programs are what our country needs to be more energy independent.”

She described the venture between agriculture and business as “a win-win for everyone.”

“My father’s family were willow basket makers. So, this comes right around,” Yeager said.

For more information, visit [email protected] or go to esf.edu/willow