ONTARIO - First-time travelers through Eastern Oregon always notice the distinct lack of trees. The area more known for potatoes and onions wasn't deforested - it never was forested.

But that could change with the introduction of poplar tree farming to Malheur County.

"Out of four million acres in the county, probably only about 300 are naturally wooded," explained Marilyn Moore, agent with the Malheur County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service. "But we think we can grow 18-inch diameter saw logs in eight to nine years with possible yields of $4,000 to $5,000 per acre.

"We have about 50 acres in plantation plots now, but we're hoping to have 300-plus acres in production by the year 2000," Moore said. "In addition, three one-acre clonal test variety plots have been planted."

The poplar tree farming project is funded by regional strategies grants from the Oregon Lottery. Areas near Baker, Prineville and Madras also have similar clonal study plots in the same project.

Poplars are successfully being grown in other areas in Oregon, including along the Columbia River, said Moore. These sites mostly produce fiber for paper production rather than sawlogs for wood, she explained.

The economics of paper pulp requires the trees be within 100 miles of the mill, she said.

"There hasn't been a large market for poplar lumber in the U.S., but it is quite common in Europe and Japan," said Moore. "Though it seems like a soft wood, when kiln dried, poplar is strong and prized for its white color. Boise Cascade has shown some interest in purchasing and processing the harvested wood."

Poplars require much less moisture than most people believe, she said.

"It is a myth that poplars require an abnormal amount of water," said Moore. "Optimal growth seems to occur with about 24 inches per year - about the same as potatoes or several cuttings of alfalfa." Moore and her colleagues are designing their plantations in 14-foot wide rows, so farming can proceed using normal equipment for land preparation and cultivation.

"We expect there will be some additional labor costs in the first three years for pruning," she said. "Pruning should pay for itself, though. It helps increase the board feet of clear, knot-free logs."

Of the dozen or so different clonal varieties they are testing, the one that seems best adapted to the Ontario Treasure Valley area has slightly angled leaves that are green on both sides.

"This allows the tree to collect the maximum amount of sunlight and being more vertical than flat to the ground also seems to make it less susceptible to wind damage," explained Moore.

So far, Moore said the only problems they have encountered are micro-nutrient deficiencies in some of the fields that had been fallow for a long time.

"These deficiencies can usually be easily treated by adding specific nutrients, such as zinc and boron to the fields," she said. "So far we haven't had any problems with bark beetles or pests other than deer, which like to browse on young trees. We think that once we start growing larger plots this won't be much of a problem because deer tend to just eat around the edges of the plots."

Some farmers have expressed concern that the stumps left behind might ruin their fields for other crops, but Moore counters that poplar wood is extremely soft, so studies show that the stumps should rot and be able to be plowed under after a couple years of growing alfalfa.

"Logging isn't a traditional part of agriculture here, so poplar farming is going to take some education for lending institutions as well as farmers," Moore pointed out. "Most lenders aren't used to loaning money on a crop that takes nine years to cash out, but we hope the potential profits will help change their minds."

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Marilyn Moore, 541-881-1417