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Research Pioneers Harvest First Hybrid Poplar Crop

Ulen, Minn. – On a warm June day, Wendell Johnson watched heavy equipment lumber up and down field rows, harvesting the crop he had nurtured for 14 years.

This was anything but a typical harvest. The field was planted in 1988 and 1989 with some of Minnesota’s first hybrid poplar cultivars. And it may be the first poplar harvest in Minnesota history. Johnson, a University of Minnesota- Crookston researcher, planted poplars on 45 acres of Conservation Reserve Plan (CRP) land, owned by Ulen farmer Lynn Stumbo, to study the fast-growing trees as a potential agricultural crop.

In March of 1996, Johnson and Ed Wene, an AURI scientist, helped to organize the Minnesota Hybrid Poplar Research Cooperative, a public-private partnership, to investigate short-rotation forestry in Minnesota.

This summer, the co-op harvested about 10 acres of the research field using commercial logging equipment. The heavy harvesters rumbled along the neatly spaced rows, clasping standing trees with hydraulic arms. Once cut, the trees were loaded onto trucks and shipped to the Potlatch mill in Bemidji, Minn. where the fiber will be used for oriented strand board.

Wene, who participated in the inaugural harvest, said that although there was a keen interest in the results, “We knew what kind of stand we had, so there were no real surprises.”

Wene says the yield should be consistent with the clones’ expected production at the time they were planted. With more years of research and improved genetics, the cooperative is “hoping to improve yields with newer clones,” Wene says.

Beside AURI and U of M-Crookston, members of the Minnesota Hybrid Poplar Research Cooperative include Blandin Paper, Boise Cascade, International Paper, Lee Nursery, Minnesota Power, Potlatch Corporation and the Natural Resources Research Institute.

Next spring, the harvested field will be replanted with young clones. Portions will be planted after removing the old stumps; another area will be restocked without removing stumps to compare the two second-generation planting conditions.

Besides harvesting 10 acres of the research field, portions of the remaining 35 acres were thinned by removing every third row of trees. “We’ll be able to look at how 12- and 13-year-old trees respond to thinning,” Wene says.

The first commercial hybrid poplar harvest was not only a landmark event for poplar research, it opens up opportunities for a new battery of tests for this woody agricultural crop.