ROCK SPRINGS — The farmland in a plot behind the Penn State Ag Progress Days site may not be good enough for corn, but willow shrubs are a different matter.
The shrubs, now only about a foot tall, are part of a research project on biomass stock — plants that can be converted into fuel.
“It looks kind of feeble at the end of the first year,” said Larry Smart, a faculty member in the department of horticulture at Cornell University.
In the spring, he said, the plants will take off vigorously, reaching as high as 12 feet tall next year. By the end of 2015, they’ll be 20 or 25 feet tall and ready to harvest.
“What are we going to harvest from these crops?” Smart asked the group of people on the biomass tour Tuesday at Ag Progress Days. “Simply, it’s wood chips that can be burned to create heat and power.”
The tour of the project involving researchers from Penn State and Cornell was one highlight of Penn State’s Ag Progress Days activities, which kicked off Tuesday and will continue today and Thursday.
The College of Agricultural Sciences’ annual event features the latest in agricultural research and equipment, along with demonstrations, activities for children and food.
Amy Hazlett, of Hollidaysburg, was there with her 3-year-old son, Mason, and 5-year-old niece, Tory Flannegan, who were looking at nematodes — microscopic worms — and fungus through microscopes in the 4-H building.
“We always look forward to it,” Hazlett said. “I like that they can get hands-on learning.”
Tractors are always an attraction for Mason, whereas Tory is partial to the animals.
of under way can be found throughout the event. Along with the biomass plots, there are tours of the Arboretum at Penn State, general research, organic crops and high-yield soybeans and corn.
Kelly Sparks and Bill Fisher, supervisor and assistant supervisor of maintenance at Northern Bedford County School District, were among those on the bioenergy tour. The district got a biomass boiler a month ago, and representatives are trying to decide whether switchgrass or wood chips would make the best fuel.
“We’ve got to run the numbers,” Fisher said.
Sparks said the district has 80 acres of tillable land it leases to farmers that could be used to grow its own fuel. He said the change is expected to save $90,000 a year compared with the cost of oil for the three schools the new biomass boiler serves.
Penn State researcher Josh Herr said the site where the willows are growing had been used for corn, but it was deemed nonproductive.
“It’s really something you don’t have to tend to very much,” he said of the willows.
The willows are harvested in the winter, cut at the base when the ground is frozen, and then re-sprout in the spring.
Another plot is being used to grow poplars that will be converted to ethanol.
Penn State professor Michael Jacobson said it’s a good opportunity for farmers and landowners who have property they aren’t using. Growing and harvesting biocrops can mean an investment up front, but can pay for itself over time.
“We want to start finding growers out there, especially on marginal land,” Jacobson said.
Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @AnneDanahy