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Bridging plants and trees

Cheap wood stumps are history.

In 1985, aspen stumpage sold for about $2 a cord. Today it sells for about $55 and can go as high as $95 per cord, says Dentley Haugesag, forestry products expert for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “That’s a big change in 20 years.”

It’s simple economics: the demand for wood fiber has gone up; the supply has gone down.

That may not be good news for manufacturers, but it could be for agriculture. At least that’s the hope of the Minnesota Biofibers Consortium, a group of 40 researchers, industry experts and companies joined to investigate ag fiber as a wood-fiber alternative. AURI is a consortium member.

“We’ll be looking at beet pulp, corn stover, wheat and barley straw, those types of fibers,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director. “Even mixing a small percentage of ag products into the fiber stream would have a huge impact. AURI is looking at it as additional income for producers.”

Paper-thin supplies

Minnesota forests and tree plantations supply the state’s paper and lumber industries with millions of tons of wood each year. But pulp, dimensional lumber and oriented strand board are stretching the state’s wood supply paper-thin.

The high-demand, high-price trend has been developing over the past two decades.

Haugesag says Minnesota’s pulp and lumber industry consumes about 5 million cords of wood each year. Replacing 10 to 15 percent with ag-fiber pulp would require as much as 200,000 dry tons of biomass.

Uniting farm and forest

The consortium will be challenged by wood fiber users’ varying needs. For example, a paper-pulping plant has different raw-material specifications than an oriented-strand-board manufacturer. Part of the Biofiber Consortium’s goal is to develop a catalog of ag-fiber information useful to various wood industry segments.

Haugesag says the group, formed earlier this year, is identifying potential ag-fiber opportunities that will require more specific research. The University of Minnesota Department of Biobased Products will conduct any required testing, while AURI will connect producers with emerging technologies and opportunities.

“We’re trying to build a bridge between agriculture and the forestry industry,” adds Haugesag. “We’re not looking to replace wood, but if we can account for 10 to 15 percent of the fiber needs with ag biomass, it would help cut demand and possibly lower prices.”

Economic test

The bottom line will determine whether wood and paper industries take a serious look.

“Economics will have to drive this or nothing will happen,” Haugesag admits.

“But if some ag products can be used as a substitute, it may lower the cost of wood and give some of these plants room to maneuver.”