College harvests willow for biomass fuel

MIDDLEBURY — Those working in Middlebury College’s sustainability office are feeling a bit more “chipper” this week.
On Tuesday, Middlebury College employees began harvesting the first batch of wood chips from its willow test plot in two fields to the west of the campus off Route 125, bringing the school’s biomass plant one step closer to processing its own wood fuel.
The $12 million biomass plant, completed in 2008, is part of the college’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2016. Ultimately, administrators hope that the plant will cut the college’s heating oil consumption in half.
But in order to make this a reality, the college must come up with a plan for supplying the 2-year-old boiler with a hefty amount of local, economical and sustainable fuel — in this case, around 20,000 tons of wood chips each year.
To find a solution, Middlebury teamed up with researchers from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) led by Timothy Volk to develop the willow test plots. The college planted five different varieties of willow trees, and the researchers have been experimenting with various fertilizers.
Tuesday’s harvest involved reaping nine acres of the shrubs, but the college does not yet have a total count of the wood chips produced. While workers operated machines from New Holland Equipment, Champlain Valley Equipment, Monument Farms and Middlebury College to mass-harvest, Volk and his crew took smaller samples to take back to the lab for testing.  
According to the college’s “Willow FAQ,” these shrubs will regenerate without any additional tilling or planting, and be ready for harvest in another three years.
Though this first test-plot harvest is complete, tests on how well the chips burn, how quickly the trees grow and how much fertilizer and care they require must be completed before the college will have a sense of how successful it will be, according to Assistant Treasurer of the College Tom Corbin, who is overseeing the project.
“We won’t have the final results for some time,” Corbin said. “There’s still some hand harvesting going on, and we won’t have the results of the test burn for about a month.” 
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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