Harvest time for trees fed with sludge

Oregon wastewater district experiments with a poplar farm

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photoA feller buncher cuts poplars Wednesday at the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission's Biocycle Farm north of Eugene, Ore. Fifty-two acres of trees, a decade old and at least 60 feet tall, are being harvested from what is believed to be the nation's largest tree farm fed with biosolids -- treated sewage sludge.

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EUGENE, Ore. -- It's not your typical tree harvest.

Workers are cutting down the first trees grown at Biocycle Farm in northwest Eugene, believed to be the nation's largest tree farm fed with treated sewage sludge -- known in industry parlance as biosolids.

The Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission, which collects and treats the sewage generated by residents in the Eugene-Springfield area, owns and operates the nearly 400-acre tree farm northwest of Eugene along Highway 99.

The commission has contracted with Lane Forest Products to clear approximately 12,700 trees that were planted in 2003 and have grown to a height of at least 60 feet, with an option to harvest the remaining 25,300 or so trees over the next two years.

Another 53,000 younger trees continue to grow at the farm. State agricultural regulations require the commission to harvest the decade-old trees by 2015.

The initial harvest is a test to determine market demand. Commission representatives acknowledge it will reap less money than was expected when the farm opened a decade ago in a stronger market.

After harvesting and processing, Lane Forest Products will market the chips to papermakers and as hog fuel for electricity generators.

Under the contract, the sewer purveyor will begin to make money after Lane Forest Products recoups its harvest costs, estimated at more than $243,000. However, if there are no sales, the commission is out a maximum of $200,000 that it would have to pay Lane Forest Products.

The expected outcome, according to a scenario presented to the commission this month, is for it to make a small sum -- $35,828 -- on the initial harvest.

"It will pay better than most of our waste treatment process, which doesn't make any money," said Ken Vanderford, a Eugene city employee who manages the biosolids program, including the farm. The commission's main source of revenue is monthly fees it charges the region's sewage system users.

However, Oren Posner, Lane Forest Products' vice president, said that although he has buyers for the chips and hog fuel, he doubted that it would generate enough money to recoup the harvest costs.

"The markets are very poor right now and are likely to remain that way for a period of time," he said.

Once the initial harvest and accounting are finished, the commission and business will sit down to negotiate a contract amendment for the harvest of the remaining trees on the initial plot.

Even if the farm isn't a revenue generator, it provides an "innovative, environmentally responsible way to manage biosolids," said Rachael Chilton, a Springfield city employee who provides community outreach for the wastewater commission.

The commission produces about 4,000 dry tons of sewage sludge a year. The sludge is the leftover solid waste extracted from liquid sewage at the commission's River Avenue plant next to the Willamette River.

The farm was created to use the sludge that the commission is unable to donate to area farmers as fertilizer. Poplar trees have a prodigious appetite for the nutrients in biosolids.

The agency also expects that the trees planted later will have a higher value and yield when they're harvested, as workers are perfecting their growing techniques using sludge, said Todd Miller, a Springfield city employee managing the harvest.

Miller said officials will sit down this spring to evaluate the harvest and determine what to do with the cleared land. Options include planting more poplars, trying other crops such as grass, or reserving it for business development, as the land is zoned for heavy industrial.