Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Biomass, Meet Pasture...Pasture, Biomass

In addition to my position as your humble Pasture Outreach Coordinator, I've been spending a portion of my time providing outreach and logistical services to a community wood biomass project.  The Center for Sustainable Ag and UVM's Rubenstein School of Natural Resources have partnered with Vermont Family Forests, Forest Guild and a Mad River Valley energy group to learn more about wood energy resources in two communities, how that wood is harvested, how it's used, and how it's paid for.  Wow, what an eye-opening experience that has turned out to be for my pasture work.

Through the course of the project, which is now wrapping up (you can read project reports at www.uvm.edu/forestcarbon), we've looked into how sustainably the resource is managed; how it's processed; how the higher and lower-valued products are marketed; how the land manager, the land owner and the processor receive reasonable rates for their products;  and how external policies affect every day decisions. 

Sound familiar?  Yeah, I thought so too.

Let's not forget the seasonality of wood production (a concept that I admit had never occurred to me).  Many loggers work in the winter when the ground is frozen and timber mills must hose down their saw logs out in the yard to make sure the wood stays moist enough to saw and NOT dry enough to catch fire. 

For the direct-sale marketers out there, this will also seem like a page torn out of your books: high end saw timber highly subsidizes the ability to provide wood chips or lower-expense biomass at "cheap" prices.  Not entirely unlike the Rib Eye steak allows for cheap(er) hamburger.  Can farmers make money on a ground-beef only cow?  Can loggers/landowners/forest managers make money on forests cleared for wood chips?  That last questions was resoundingly asked at a woody biomass field trip our project hosted in April.  I was personally struck by the similarity of the responses I heard from the logger to the responses I have heard from many dairy farmers.  Customers are not always willing to pay for us to manage the way that we would like.  In the case of state contracts for wood chip heating facilities, the contracting system seeks the lowest price, which may not be enough money (realistically) to manage wood harvests in agreement with state law.  Hmmm.  Do we want the least expensive, or do we want to protect our environment and create livable wage jobs?  These are questions that will need to be addressed in the future for all of our working landscape industries.

Finally, a thing that resonated with me was what Bob Perschel of Forest Guild said in his presentation about new sustainability guidelines for biomass harvest developed by the Guild.  To paraphrase: "We, the foresters and loggers, know more about the impacts of policy on the forests than anyone else.  Shouldn't we be the ones leading the way?"

Well, that made me think about grass-based and sustainable farmers too.

Would you have known this forest was logged last year by looking at it?  The biomass from this property in Lincoln, VT was logged according to sustainable guidelines and the cord wood sold in a pilot project following a CSA style.  Prices were structured for the wood buyer to pay true costs (or close to them) of this management to the logger and land owners.