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A Tale of two Tree Farms

Logging and Sawmilling Journal tours two cottonwood operations, one in BC, the other in Oregon, and looks at the role this fast-growing tree is playing in the industry.

Stories by Bill Tice
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Eight to 12-year growing cycles for fibre supply, once only seen in warmer climates such as Chile and Costa Rica, are now showing up in places like the US Pacific Northwest and southwestern BC.

But it's not traditional species like radiata pine that are rapidly growing in these cooler climates. It's hybrid poplar, also referred to as cottonwood, which was once considered a weed species.

For some time, forest products companies have recognized the need for a fibre filler in pulp production, especially with the diminishing supply of softwood fibre from species such as hemlock, fir and spruce. Poplar has proven to be a good choice. Not only is the hardwood easy and quick to grow, but it also adds a natural brightener and is ideal for paper products requiring a brightness of 65 and above. It can also be used in newsprint production with the addition of dulling agents to tone down the brightness.

There are few downsides and limitations related to the use of poplar fibre. The obvious one is the lack of strength in the fibre compared to softwoods. This limits the amount of poplar fibre that can be used in the fibre mix. The other drawback is the useable life span of the fibre after the log has been chipped. If not utilized quickly, the chips lose their brightness and additional peroxide has to be added.

With many benefits and few downsides, poplar or cottonwood farms have been cropping up on small parcels of land close to pulp and paper mills from the Columbia River basin to Vancouver Island. In many cases, the land suitable for poplar is not suited to growing most softwoods, so a poplar farm is an ideal solution. Calling it a farm is very appropriate, for in Canada and the United States, poplar is considered an agricultural crop.

Some of the farms in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon are on land that is owned and operated by the pulp and paper companies, while others are on leased land. In most cases, trees are meticulously planted at ideal spacing requirements and are lined up in neat rows, making the tending and harvesting functions quick and easy.

Poplar plantations are not limited to the North American west coast. In fact, plantations can be found all over North America and Europe, and with hundreds of varieties of poplar or cottonwood available, companies can select a mix of parent trees for cross-pollination to produce trees that thrive in specific geographic or climatic conditions.

For Logging and Sawmilling Journal's look at the poplar business, we visited two farms. One, an established farm in Oregon that is already harvesting trees, and another on Vancouver Island that is six years away from their first harvest.

Its Harvest Time on the Farm

Chuck Kaiser

Chuck Kaiser shows some of the cottonwood trees on the 11,000 acres that make up the Lower Columbia River Fiber Farm in Oregon.

The Lower Columbia River Fiber Farm in Oregon, established in 1983, has a rotating tree-harvesting program in place for its cottonwood farm, logging 1,000 acres a year.

Driving around the dikes that hold back the waters of the Columbia River near Clatskanie, Oregon, Chuck Kaiser is happy to show off his fanriland, all 11,000 acres (3,500 ha) of it.

Kaiser is superintendent of the Lower Columbia River Fiber Farm, which is part of the Fort James Corporation. The fibre farm he operates is behind dikes since it is on land that was reclaimed from the Columbia River around the turn of the century. With a mean elevation of plus/minus one metre, the moist, soggy ground is not conducive to growing many crops. However, it is perfect for Kaiser's hybrid cottonwoods, which are a cross between native black cottonwood and primarily eastern cottonwood from the southeastern United States, although they also work with other varieties from around the world.

"We have an ongoing genetic process where we cross-pollinate our native Black Cottonwood with varieties from around the world to give us the survivability, growth and disease and insect resistance we are looking for," says Kaiser.

The cottonwood project for Fort James started several owners ago when they were part of Crown Zellerbach in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"One of the senior managers at that time recognized that we would eventually have a shortage of fibre and wanted to put some kind of program in place," says Kaiser. "The company initiated two research sites in the early 1980s-one at Westport, Oregon and the second one at Boardman, Oregon-before establishing the Lower Columbia River Fiber Farm in 1983."

In 1985, Crown Zellerbach was taken over by Sir James Goldsmith, who in turn sold the pulp side of the business to the James River Corporation. The farm became part of the James River Corporation at that time and underwent several more corporate changes. In August 1997, when James River merged with the Fort Howard Corporation in a friendly takeover, the farm became part of the new Fort James Fiber Company.

Through all of the ownership changes, one thing has been consistent: the commitment to the fibre farm which has harvested 1,000 acres every year on a continuous rotation since 1991.

"Of the 11,000 acres we farm, 8,400 acres are in production and they are split into 1,000-acre blocks, so on our eight-year cycle we can harvest 1,000 acres every year," says Kaiser.

The field size at the Columbia River farm ranges from three acres to 325 acres, with the average size being approximately 30 acres. With consistent spacing between trees of 10'X7', Kaiser says they produce 622 trees to the acre.

After the first year, the Cottonwoods are only 6'to 8'tall. By the end of the second year, however, the trees should reach crown closing and are 20'to 25'in height. At this point, Kaiser says, they should not require any further herbicide treatments or cultivation and should be free to grow until they reach their harvest size of 7.5" diameter at breast height (DBH) and 65' to 70' tall. At the end of the eighth year, the trees are harvested and site preparation is done to allow the planting of cuttings the following year.

Harvesting is done by a contractor, Solo Leasing and Development Corporation, with a small three-wheeled Bell feller buncher that effortlessly manoeuvres through the trees, cutting and piling them into bundles of 10 to 15 logs. The cut logs are then moved with a Cat 518 rubber-tired skidder or a Cat D4-H tracked skidder to a LinkBelt knuckleboom loader that sends them to a Peterson 4800 chain flail debarker, and finally into a Morbark 22" chipper. The chips are then blown directly into chip trucks and transported to the mill.

Limbs, tips smaller than 2.5" in diameter and bark are all left in the field to naturally decompose.

"We go from mature trees to rolls of paper in less than three days time," says Kaiser. "If we cut on Wednesday, the chips are paper by Friday."

The farm's cottonwood production is shipped to the company's Wauna, Oregon mill, where the chips are used in the mill's CTMP (Chemical Thermo Mechanical Pulp) system in the production of communication papers. The Wauna mill produces both communications papers, such as coated papers for store sale flyers, telephone books, bible papers and writing papers, as well as towel and tissue products.

The 1,000 acres harvested annually at the fibre farm provides the Wauna mill with two per cent of the company's annual hardwood requirements, meaning they are still heavily dependent on outside sources.

A positive side-effect of the Lower Columbia River Farm is the recovery of the Columbian white-tailed deer, which has been on the endangered species list since 1968. "A co-operative agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service provides additional habitat security for the herd which now numbers over 250 animals, according to a government estimate," says Kaiser. One thousand acres of a centralized area is managed on a two-year rotating basis to provide different levels of habitat.

"When one of the farm's areas is harvested, the animals happily move to an adjacent area and because we are only harvesting one-third of our crop every year, there is always a wide variety of habitat for the deer to use," adds Kaiser.

In addition to the growing population of Columbian white-tailed deer, the fibre farm is home to elk, black-tailed deer, wintering Canada Geese and a number of species of migratory song birds.

Standing in a field of seven-year-old trees that seem to reach the sky, Kaiser says he has one more stage he wants to implement at the fibre farm before he retires in 10 years.

"My dream is to take the machines to the wood instead of the wood to the machines. I want to have a buncher out front followed by a debarker and a grinder with only the chips going to a landing for transport to the mill."

If the farm's successes to date are any indication of what the future holds, Kaiser will probably see his dream come true.

Growing The Future Farm

Doug Tuck

Doug Tuck, operations supervisor for Poplar Farms, says the operation is looking for its first harvest in 2004.

Approximately 500 km north of the Lower Columbia River Fibre Farm in Oregon, the crew at another hardwood operation are also working to make their dreams become a reality.

BC's Poplar Farms, part of MacMillan Bloedel spin-off company Pacifica Papers, is planning for the long term, looking toward their first harvest in 2004. Fibre from the operation will be suitable for the company's Port Alberni and Powell River mills.

Poplar Farms, near Parksville on Vancouver Island, is well on its way to its first harvest.

The Poplar Farms operation was owned and operated by MacMillan Bloedel until April of this year when it was sold as part of the company's paper division assets to an investment group led by Vancouver brokerage firm Goepel McDermid and a number of institutional investors. The new company is called Pacifica Papers Inc.

"The sale should not affect the operation and it should be business as usual for the farm," says Doug Tuck, Operations Supervisor for Poplar Farms.

According to Tuck, the Poplar Farms operation currently manages almost 3,000 ha on Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast and Northwest Washington state. That number should reach 8,000 ha by their first harvest in 2004 and will be at 10,000 ha when they are fully sustainable in 2008.

"By that point we should be harvesting about 1,000 hectares per year or one-tenth of our production, as we will be on a 10- to 12-year cycle," says Tuck.

The numbers for Poplar Farms are substantially higher than the Lower Columbia River Fibre Farm, as they are in hectares whereas the Oregon farm uses acres.

Fibre from Poplar Farms will be suitable for use at the company's Port Alberni mill and at their Powell IZiver mill in the soft calendering process.

Tuck has the same concerns as Chuck Kaiser about using the fibre quickly before it loses brightness.

"We plan on chipping 50 per cent of the raw logs at the farm site for just-in-time delivery to the mill, and the other 50 per cent at a satellite chipping facility where we can store raw logs," says Tuck.

Harvesting for the Poplar Farms operation will be similar to the techniques used by the Lower Columbia River farm, including the use of the three-wheeled Bell feller buncher. Tuck has been carefully watching the Lower Columbia River farm and swaps information with Chuck Kaiser on a regular basis. The two companies have also had reciprocal visits and Tuck has visited other cottonwood farms, including a Mississippi farm, owned by the Crown Vantage Corporation.

Poplar Farms was initially the idea of Cees Van Oosten in the mid-1980s, when he was a forester with MacMillan Bloedel's Kelsey Bay division.

Although everyone considered the cottonwood tree to be a weed, Van Oosten had the support of his supervisor and initiated the company's first trial in 1986 as a research project.

"With his Dutch background, Cees knew what had been done in Europe with hybrid plantations and he knew it could produce a viable source of fibre here," says Tuck.

Van Oosten saw the Poplar Farms division officially open in 1994 and is still with the operation today as their farm superintendent. Since Van Oosten initiated the project, the operation has experimented with 350 to 400 different varieties of poplar, but they have now narrowed it down to 15 to 20 varieties. For the conditions on Vancouver Island, all of the cross-pollinations start with the local black cottonwood, or Trichocarpa. In most cases, they are crossed with Deltoides, which is the eastern cottonwood used primarily by the Oregon farm, Nigra, which is a European variety, or Maximowiczii, a Japanese Poplar.

Spacing for the trees at Poplar Farms is 3 m by 2.5 in, which is very similar to the spacing at the Columbia River farm. In addition to the ease of fertilizing and harvesting, this spacing also makes the farms conducive to wildlife habitat for voles, eagles, hawks and other large birds. Fences keep deer and elk out of the farms for the first three years to protect the young trees, but are removed after the third year to allow the larger animals access.

As the fibre supply becomes tighter in British Columbia, Tuck and the other staff members at Poplar Farms are hoping to realize their goal of harvesting 1,000 ha annually in order to help Pacifica Papers maintain production levels. What this means to Cees Van Oosten is that what was once just a vision will be a reality.

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