Surrounded by more traditional agricultural endeavors, the 88,000-tree, 600-acre poplar farm off U.S. Highway 99 between Eugene and Junction City is a visual oddity on the Willamette Valley landscape.
Planted in three phases since 2004, the fast-growing poplars are fed by Eugene-Springfield’s treated sewage sludge. The property sucks up 30 percent of the sludge output of the two cities.
First dreamt up in the late 1990s, the so-called “biocycle farm” was created with an initial expenditure of more than $5 million for land and irrigation systems by the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission, a division of the Public Works Department that levies local sewer fees. The agency is managed jointly by Eugene, Springfield and Lane County officials.
The poplar farm helps resolve a space crunch for the agency. While local farmers take the majority of sludge off the sewage agency’s hands to use as free fertilizer on fields, there isn’t enough demand to dispose of all the sludge.
The vast tree farm provides an alternative disposal spot, thereby preventing the four lagoons where the sludge is stored from filling up.
Now, eight years after the first poplars were planted, the commission is about to get a firm idea of the farm’s financial viability. It will put the first 156 acres of trees out to bid this fall, for a potential harvest in the next three years.
The commission hopes to market the trees as timber that could be turned into wood products — picture frames, furniture and the like. That approach would yield a better sale price than if the trees have to be sold on the faltering wood-chips market.
But a recent agency request for information from potential buyers yielded four responses, with only two companies interested in the lumber for its wood product potential.
Generally, responders wanted trees at least 60 feet tall and with trunks of at least 8 inches in diameter at chest height, a criteria that only some of the trees in the first plot meet.
Breaking even, at best
Based on experiences at similar poplar farms throughout the state, wood sales are often a break-even proposition at best. Buyers charge the woodland owner about the same amount for the work of logging the trees as the buyers are willing to pay for the wood itself.
“We’re looking at (those programs) as benchmarks,” said Todd Miller, the assistant project coordinator and a city of Springfield employee.
The financial picture for the Eugene poplar farm may get rosier over time, Miller said. The market for the higher-value wood products that the poplars could be turned into is “starting to expand,” he said.
The end product also will improve, Miller added, as workers perfect their poplar-growing techniques. For example, four subspecies or clones of poplar that were underperforming in the first section of trees were eliminated from the section planted in 2009.
“We certainly hope to position ourselves so that we end up on the plus side of things (financially),” Miller said.
But even if a wood sale in itself could yield a net profit for the commission, that profit is unlikely to cover the day-to-day maintenance of the tree farm.
In the summer, waste management workers must roll out hose carts to spread recycled wastewater and biosolids all along seemingly endless rows of trees.
The sludge treatment is done once a year, while watering is done regularly throughout the summer months. Additionally, contractors have to be brought in to prune the trees or cut them down if they become sickly.
All in all, maintenance work is “fairly intensive,” said Ken Vanderford, a city of Eugene employee who manages the sludge facility next to the poplar farm.
While Vanderford said the annual poplar farm maintenance costs haven’t been calculated, he acknowledged that they’ve been higher than the commission expected when it first decided to create the farm.
“It’s farming,” he said. “Some years are worse than others” in terms of cost.
If the commission’s goal is to grow bigger, more marketable trees, a couple of issues likely will hamstring them.
First, the trees are on agriculture-zoned land. Under state land use law, they are considered an agricultural crop — not a forest — which means they must be harvested every 12 years at a minimum.
That limits growth potential, Vanderford said.
“Twenty-year rotations would be fantastic,” he added.
Yields also could be improved by planting the poplars closer together and feeding them with more biosolids and more water. But that would have drawbacks.
The risk of the sludge contaminating groundwater — something the agency says has not occurred so far — would be higher. And odors emanating from the farm could be more pungent, potentially riling nearby residents and farmers, something that also has not been a problem yet, officials said.
“We’ve certainly been conservative in the way we approach yields,” Vanderford said. “These trees are under-nourished and under-watered. But we want to be good neighbors.”
Even with those problems, Miller and Vanderford agree that the poplar farm is the best option for disposing of the metropolitan area’s excess sewage sludge.
“The alternative would be trucking it to a landfill to be dumped,” Miller said. That would be expensive and use up valuable landfill space. “The environmental benefits of (the tree farm) are obvious,” he said.
While wood sales in the near future may not generate any return on the commission’s significant capital spending, Vanderford said he thinks the project still will have been worthwhile for the region.
“Not everyone sees it this way, but to me, if we were to make any money on this, it would be a bonus,” he said.