PROJECT: Experimental demonstration plots of shrub willow, switchgrass, and sorghum
GOAL: Chip or pellet biomass to fire boiler for maple syrup production (replacing 1000 gallons of oil currently used)
With what is almost certainly the biggest student-run maple syrup operation in the United States, Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School District has been spreading the gospel of the sugarbush since 1992. That year, the VVS sugar house made 27 gallons of syrup. In 2011, they produced more than a thousand gallons (from about 3500 taps on more than 150 acres owned or leased by the school district). But more important than the quantity of syrup is the quality of the educational experience students gain through being a part of every aspect of production. Keith Schiebel, agriculture teacher at VVS High School and FFA advisor (formerly, Future Farmers of America), created the program as a way to focus Ag-in-the-Classroom activities around one product. In 2011, Schiebel had 176 students in the program.
And he's taken it beyond the classroom, with a 28' maple trailer that he and his students take on the road, regularly traveling to New York City and throughout the northeast. In 2010, working with US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the group took the trailer to the National Mall in Washington, DC. The school district even hosts one of the largest maple syrup conferences in the world. Started in 2000, it has grown to attracting more than 800 people from 13 states, Canada, and Sweden in 2011. For his efforts, Schiebel has garnered many accolades, including being named one of six Outstanding Agricultural Education Teachers in the country by the National Association of Agriculture Educators in 2010 (for a region covering from Maine to West Virginia); the VVS FFA was named Chapter of the Year by the New York State Agricultural Society the same year.
As the program grew, Schiebel became concerned about certain aspects of the operation that he felt weren't sustainable, particularly the amount of oil they go through to boil the sap. With a conversion factor of about 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup, it takes many, many hours of continuously heating the sap to produce syrup. VVS has on display a colonial-era maple-boiling setup - basically, a large cauldron hung over a bonfire. But their actual operations are firmly in the modern era, and much of their equipment is designed to make that process more efficient. It includes a sap filtration system, sap preheater, "Piggyback" heat exchanger, reverse osmosis machine and state-of-the-art maple evaporator.
The reverse osmosis machine, purchased in 2010 at a cost of about $18,000, is the main driver behind maximizing that efficiency. It removes about 80 percent of the water in the sap, knocking down total fuel use by 1/4 to 1/5 and allowing them to boil the day's sap collection in about six hours (versus the roughly 40 it would take before they had the machine). However, even with the reverse osmosis machine, it takes about a gallon of oil to make a gallon of syrup.
Mary Wrege, a Renewable Energy Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County, saw a potential opportunity and solution. She approached Schiebel in July 2008 to pitch a far-reaching idea: to work with researchers to establish school-based research plots of biomass crops that could be used as potential fuel sources for the evaporator. This would not only replace the school district's use of oil in their syrup production but would help field demonstrate a small-scale closed-loop renewable biomass system complete with a "biomass lab" at VVS. The school district, and, more importantly, students in the Ag program, would be involved in growing, harvesting, processing, and burning the biomass on-site (or at least nearby). Additionally, through their management and oversight of the biomass lab, the students would gain important knowledge and specific skill sets that would be useful for a variety of related careers in the emerging field of biomass utilization.
Situated roughly midway between Syracuse and Utica, VVS School District isn't far from several experimental biomass field trials established separately by the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Cornell University. SUNY ESF researchers have been particularly interested in shrub willow, while Cornell researchers have focused on perennial grasses, including switchgrass, both of which grow well on marginal, poorly drained soils. The strategic location of the site also makes it a valuable resource for farmers and growers in the Central New York region who may be interested in or have questions about renewable bioenergy crop opportunities.
Wrege introduced Schiebel to Dr. Larry Smart, one of the preeminent genetic researchers of shrub willow, (who was then at SUNY ESF and is currently with Cornell) about establishing a trial on property owned by the school district. Smart and his colleagues at SUNY ESF, Dr. Timothy Volk and Dr. Larry Abrahamson, saw both the research and educational value of having a field trial hosted at a school with such a strong ag program. In the fall of 2008, with student and local farmer support, the school district prepared the field. In May 2009, the researchers and students planted eight varieties of shrub willow on about 3.3 acres of marginal land near the campus shared by the district offices, the high school and the middle school. Wrege then worked with Cornell researchers Dr. Donald Viands, Dr. Hilary Mayton, and Dr. Julie Hansen, to coordinate the planting of another acre of switchgrass on an adjacent field shortly thereafter. A third biomass energy crop, sorghum, was planted by Dr. Sharon Mitchell of Cornell in 2010 on two adjacent plots totalling about 1 1/4 acres that were cleared of overgrowth locust trees and shrubs.
As of May 2011, Schiebel was waiting to hear back about a USDA grant he had submitted with support from Wrege and Dr. Smart to help purchase equipment, including a biomass boiler that would replace the program's existing oil-fired boiler. Ultimately, Schiebel would like to chip the willow and pelletize the switchgrass and sorghum and burn them in a closed-loop system that would have nearly all inputs and outputs coming from the school district's land or nearby land it leases.
The willow that was planted in spring 2009 was coppiced, or cut back, that fall to initiate more vigorous growth. It resprouted in the spring of 2010 and is scheduled for a first harvest in the winter of 2012, which will coincide nicely with the sugaring season. The shrub willow can be harvested every three years thereafter, with a total of seven cycles possible before replanting is required due to significantly decreased yields. Switchgrass takes three years to fully establish the stand, so the first significant harvest is scheduled for the fall of 2011. The VVS ag program is exploring options and methods to pelletize the sorghum and switchgrass crops.
In the few years since the project was hatched, Wrege and Schiebel have been busy spreading the word, including organizing media events, writing articles for the local newspaper, giving tours of the plots, meeting with area farmers and growers, as well as bringing in important stakeholders from across NYS and beyond. Within the next couple of years, they, along with the researchers, hope to be able to demonstrate the many benefits of a closed-loop biomass-based renewable energy system, while giving hundreds of young people a hands-on education on all aspects of the process-and producing a delicious and profitable crop!
Keith Schiebel, agriculture teacher, VVS High School, and FFA advisor (formerly, Future Farmers of America)
p: (315) 829-2520
Last updated June 14, 2018