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Cornell Gets $1.37 Million Grant To Develop Bioenergy Willows

Cornell grant from USDA/DOE aims to grow new hybrid willows as a promising bioenergy source, expand cash crop opportunities for Northeast farmers.

John Vogel, Editor, American Agriculturist

August 5, 2012

2 Min Read

Expanded commercialization of shrub willow as a bioenergy crop moves a step closer, thanks to a $1.37 million grant for Cornell University researchers developing the newly mapped shrub willow genome. Cornell Horticulturist Larry Smart and Christopher Town, of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., are partnering in a study the genetics of superior growth in hybrids of shrub willow, a fast-growing, perennial cool-climate woody plant.

The grant, funded by U.S. Department of Energy and USDA aims to boost growth efficiency and innovation of hybrid willows as a biofuel feedstock. It's the first project to take advantage of the recently mapped shrub willow genome.


But Smart and Fredonia, N.Y., farmer/entrepreneur Dennis Rak envisioned the potential years ago. They've been working since 1998 to develop shrub willows with superior genetics at Rak's Double A Willow farm with funding by the New York Farm Viability Institute and others.

They've been unlocking the genetic mechanisms for superior hybrid growth via farm field trials. Finding the genetic fingerprint for superior hybrid vigor in parent species could cut the time it takes to identify even more promising progeny, says Smart.

"We think the results of this research will take years off the cycle time needed to find the best growing shrub willow hybrids," he adds. "With consistent increases in yield each cycle, we'll rapidly advance commercialization of this emerging bioenergy crop."

New potential for marginal cropland

Hybrid willows are already being grown on some of New York State's more marginal farmland. But Department of Ag and Markets officials estimate there's more than 1 million acres of poorly drained and otherwise underutilized land in New York alone.

Using this land to grow shrub willow is creating a new regional cash crop with far greater potential. Unlike corn or sugarcane, shrub willow doesn't need the more fertile soil used for the production of fruit, vegetables or livestock feed. It also needs less fertilizer and other inputs to thrive.

"Willow represents an important bioenergy crop for the Northeast. The hybrids that are being developed by Cornell have the potential to provide higher yields of more suitable biomass and with more efficient use of resources such as water," notes Town.

Improving shrub willow yields on marginal land is the main goal for Smart's willow breeding program which began in 1998. Smart also participates in projects to demonstrate its use and value to farmers, biofuels companies, small businesses and municipalities.

For more on this project, see May's feature article in American Agriculturist. Click on

farm-to-furnace .

About the Author(s)

John Vogel

Editor, American Agriculturist

For more than 38 years, John Vogel has been a Farm Progress editor writing for farmers from the Dakota prairies to the Eastern shores. Since 1985, he's been the editor of American Agriculturist – successor of three other Northeast magazines.

Raised on a grain and beef farm, he double-majored in Animal Science and Ag Journalism at Iowa State. His passion for helping farmers and farm management skills led to his family farm's first 209-bushel corn yield average in 1989.

John's personal and professional missions are an integral part of American Agriculturist's mission: To anticipate and explore tomorrow's farming needs and encourage positive change to keep family, profit and pride in farming.

John co-founded Pennsylvania Farm Link, a non-profit dedicated to helping young farmers start farming. It was responsible for creating three innovative state-supported low-interest loan programs and two "Farms for the Future" conferences.

His publications have received countless awards, including the 2000 Folio "Gold Award" for editorial excellence, the 2001 and 2008 National Association of Ag Journalists' Mackiewicz Award, several American Agricultural Editors' "Oscars" plus many ag media awards from the New York State Agricultural Society.

Vogel is a three-time winner of the Northeast Farm Communicators' Farm Communicator of the Year award. He's a National 4-H Foundation Distinguished Alumni and an honorary member of Alpha Zeta, and board member of Christian Farmers Outreach.

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