Friday, October 16, 2009

Boardman, Oregon

Sally and I spent the last two days in the Tri-Cities area attending Sally's American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) section meeting. You might not assume I'd be all that interested in the cultivation of switchgrass for biofuels, the ways in which biochar has been over-hyped, or different ways to plant fruit trees to facilitate mechanical harvesting, but I was. Of primary interest, however, was yesterday's tour of the tree farm at Boardman, Oregon.

If you've driven Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon you've seen the Boardman tree farm, or at least a portion thereof. There are thousands (millions in fact) of hybrid poplar trees planted in straight rows along the south side of the interstate. Though it looks substantial as you drive by, it's even larger than it looks. The farm comprises 30,000 acres. That's really big.

We were shown around by Nabil Mohamed, a water and energy resources engineer. He showed us the nine, 1000 horsepower pumps that pull water from the Columbia River at a rate of up to 13,000 gallons per minute each. Nine times 13,000 gallons is 117,000 gallons per minute.
The facility is the largest drip irrigation system in the country, with over 9,000 miles of drip line. All of this is controlled by computer so that each tree gets a very precise amount of water, allowing it to grow at an incredible rate while not wasting water or money. Use of chemical pesticides is limited, as integrated pest management processes are employed. Sawdust and the refuse from harvesting is chopped back into the soil, limiting the need for chemical fertilizers. It was impressive.

On the tour we were also shown a tree combine that reduced 20 foot tall poplars to wood chips in seconds. The wood chips are used for paper manufacturing and for biofuel production. Older, taller trees are harvested for lumber products.

I'm not a fan of cutting down natural forests and replacing them with managed timber. A tree farm is not a forest, and does not support the same degree of biodiversity that a forest does. However, it seems to me that growing trees on the sandy soils across from Boardman, Oregon is a bit different. I won't say that I've been converted -- questions about the need for the products produced from these genetically modified, cloned organisms (yes, cloned) abound. But I'm apt to be less critical of this farm than I used to be, now that I have a sense of the effort they are making to be ecologically responsible. For more information about these efforts, click here.

We had lunch yesterday across the interstate from the tree farm in Boardman, Oregon. Boardman is something else. It sits on the banks of the Columbia, and all along the river are industrial facilities. There must be people who live there, for we saw a park and soccer field, but we didn't see many homes. The lunch was at a posh lodge and grill that is nestled right in the midst of the plants. Kinda weird. Good lunch, though!

It was a good, informative, whirlwind trip. We're glad we attended, and glad to be back home.

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