School district prepares to harvest 1st ‘crop’ of willow trees

HUGHESVILLE – Three years ago, the East Lycoming School District planted hybrid willow trees on 40 acres of its property. The goal was to eventually harvest the trees and turn them into wood chips to offset the district’s heating cost.

The project is going well, according to David Maciejewski, district business manager. The trees soon will be ready for their first harvest, he said.

“We’re hoping to harvest about 150 to 200 tons of wood chips from about 13 acres of land,” Maciejewski said.

The district has been working with the Cornell University, environmental groups and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to ensure that the project is done in a sustainable fashion.

The trees were chosen because they are a short, woody crop that regenerates quickly, according to Maciewjewski.

Last year, the district burned about 600 tons of wood chips. With the expected harvest this year, it will be able to supply about a third of its overall heating needs.

“It was never the intent to supply the total need. Rather, we wanted to diversify our supply chain (for wood chips) so that we have some price protection as the market fluctuates,” Maciejewski said.

He noted that the hybrid willow has been used to heat small central power stations for communities in Europe since the early 1970s. Researchers have been studying the hybrid willow for 20 years and found, if harvested responsibly, it can produce significant biomass, according to Maciejewski.

Only a third of the forest will be harvested each year. According to early estimates, it will cost the district about $3,000 to harvest the trees itself. Equipment and other auxiliary costs may run from $1,000 to $3,000.

The project also offers educational opportunities for students to learn more about biomass fuels and fuel diversity overall.