Oregon farmers have established fast growing poplar plantations to provide a source of wood fiber for paper mills. To assist growing and marketing, the Hybrid Poplar Growers Association was formed in 1999. One goal is to develop value-added markets for poplars in the region. A German company, in the business of developing alternative fibers for comforter and pillow markets in Europe, asked the association about the availability of poplar cotton in Oregon and Washington. The seeds of mature poplars produce cotton, which European makers of high quality comforters and pillows are using as filler to substitute for down and cotton. Poplar cotton can shed moisture and maintain bulk as well as offer an alternative to customers with allergic reactions to conventional fillers, giving the cotton a marketing advantage as eco-friendly filler.
Because no information was available on the costs of producing, collecting, processing and selling the cotton, the Hybrid Poplar Growers Association sought to evaluate this alternative for its members and other regional poplar growers to see whether it is a viable export for growers in the Pacific Northwest.
· Evaluate the German market for Oregon poplar cotton and establish market price
· Evaluate poplar cotton production from Oregon plantations and native stands
· Determine collecting and processing costs for poplar cotton fiber in Oregon plantations
· Summarize the findings and make recommendations to growers
· Communicate findings to members at the annual meeting
Several companies were contacted and a price for the poplar green fruit capsules was established. The German company, Papillon, prefers to clean and process the capsules to control quality, and it has established a processing center near Corvallis. The price of harvested green fruit ranges between 94 cents and $1.41 a pound, depending on quantity delivered. Papillon said it would like to receive 3,000 kilograms of capsules a year from the Pacific Northwest, and it expects demand to increase as marketing efforts in Europe increase sales.
All fruit capsules were harvested, but the quantity was too low for practical production situations. Harvest from eight-year-old trees, variety 15-029, average 6 pounds per tree in eastern and western Oregon. Westside harvest was done with man lifts, which restricted access and proved expensive for the yield obtained. Eastside harvest was from trees already felled for pulp, although some fruit capsules were lost during felling or on the bottom of the pile. Harvest from four-year-old stands of the variety 318-162, with fruit cut directly from the branch, averaged 15 pounds per tree with a much lower production cost. However, this method removed branches that contribute to tree growth and could reduce fruit capsule production the following year.
Some wild trees were quite productive. The sprouts from coppicing resulted in fruit capsules close to the ground for easy harvest. However, only two trees, both severely stressed, were harvested, a scale too small for replication.
The project team has conducted two harvests on the east and west sides of Oregon using these three methods (with the estimated profit in parentheses): 1) harvest of fruits via pruning of young trees for wood quality on the west side (9 cents a pound in 2002 and 14 cents in 2003); 2) harvest on the east side of older plantations using hydraulic man lifts to collect fruit from upper branches (33 cents a pound for both years); 3) and fruit harvest on the east side from downed trees being harvested for wood (68 cents a pound for both years).
The processor received poplar fruit capsules that had been air dried to open the capsules to release the cotton fiber. The capsules can be refrigerated for three months to aid processing and cleaning. The cotton fiber is cleaned through a series of screen to remove the capsule and debris. It’s then packaged and shipped to Germany. So far, about 7,500 pounds of poplar fruit have been harvested in the Pacific Northwest.
However, as of this report, Papillon had yet to purchase any poplar fruits in the Pacific Northwest in 2004, and the company appeared unable to maintain sufficient cash flow or attract investors to capitalize the operation. So access to the market remains in question.
In summary, poplar fruit capsules appear on trees at age four but begin maximum production at age eight. Four-year-old trees, although low fruit producers, are easiest to harvest from the ground with pole pruners. Eight-year-old trees produce large amounts of fruit capsules but can be harvested only with man lifts or by felling trees. In designing a poplar plantation, selecting the right variety for both wood and cotton is important. One variety produces abundant fruit capsules at age four, and other varieties may be found.
“The harvest method combined with the right variety can make for a profitable plantation that will return a cash flow from age four through to wood harvest,” the project team concluded. “The combination man lift and variety 318-162 should make the most sustainable operation of this type of farming for multiple objectives.”
BENEFITS OR IMPACT ON AGRICULTURE
Poplar tree farming offers a number of potentially sustainable attributes, including reducing chemical and fertilizer runoff from farming, sequestering carbon and controlling dust and erosion. Harvesting several products from the trees could provide a sustainable, long-term cash flow, creating more jobs in rural areas.
One cooperator is considering changing his operation to ring his fields with the 318-162 variety for both cotton production and as a windbreak for the field. Another is considering designing his next planting to accommodate both cotton and wood production, although he is concerned about cotton escaping to a neighbor’s field and creating a weed problem.
In projects like this with a new crop or technology, design and budget should be flexible enough to adopt new methods or promising ideas that emerge.
In this case, more research is needed to develop better varieties or evaluate existing varieties, and harvest methods need to be refined or created for easer collection. Further, comparing seasons by degree days to predict optimal harvest time would be of value.
Representatives from Papillon traveled from Germany to present their business plan, discussing an outlook for cotton fiber in Europe and their expectations of fiber quantity and quality. The grant’s final report has been sent to members of the Hybrid Poplar Growers Association and a summary made available to Capital Press, a weekly agricultural newspaper in Salem, Ore.