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Workshops set on federal program to boost regional willow production

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Starting today, several regional workshops will be held for those interested in a federal program intended to boost willow biomass production.

“It’s a great project in the sense of promoting agriculture, energy and the economy,” said John K. Bartow Jr., Tug Hill Commission executive director.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency recently announced the availability of $4.3 million in Biomass Crop Assistance Program funding in a nine-county region, consisting of Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Oswego, Oneida, Herkimer, Essex and Clinton counties. The goal of the program — through which shrub willow producers may receive up to 75 percent of first-year establishment costs, plus annual rental payments — is to add 3,500 acres of willow in the next two years.

“It’s certainly providing the incentive to make the initial investment,” Mr. Bartow said.

ReEnergy Holdings LLC, Albany, has agreed to purchase all willow crops grown in the program over an 11-year period at a fixed price per ton for use in one of its regional wood-burning cogeneration facilities. The company operates a 22-megawatt plant in Lyonsdale and a 20-megawatt plant in Chateugay and is completing a $34 million project to retrofit a former coal plant at Fort Drum to produce biomass energy.

Willow crops may be harvested every three years.

Biomass Crop Assistance Program informational meetings have been scheduled as follows:

n Today — 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the Franklin County Public Safety Building, 55 Bare Hill Road, Malone, and 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1231, 34 Gouverneur St., Canton.

n Monday — 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County office, 203 N. Hamilton St., Watertown, and 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Lowville municipal office, 5533 Bostwick St., Lowville.

n July 31 — 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County office.

Officials from ReEnergy, Farm Service Agency and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, will be on hand to explain the program enrollment process and economics of willow production.

Producers may sign up for the federal program through Sept. 14.

One benefit of willow production is that the shrub trees may be planted on marginal land that would not be conducive to growing other cash crops, Mr. Bartow said.

Willows are already being grown on several hundred acres of the Tug Hill in southern Lewis County, and the initial harvest has been tested at the Lyonsdale cogeneration plant, he said.

Previous owners of that facility several years ago floated a $20 million biorefinery project that would extract ethanol and other energy-producing chemicals from the willow plants before burning the remaining material for electricity. However, that project, planned in conjunction with SUNY ESF, never came to fruition.

Researchers at the college are now exploring the potential for extracting butanol — a more stable and transportable chemical than ethanol — from the wood product, Mr. Bartow said.

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