Forest, farm waste plant in Oregon could mean jobs

HALFWAY — A prototype plant in northeast Oregon has stoked hopes of dozens of jobs for workers turning wastes from forest thinning and chicken coops into soil amendments and fuel.

Eric Twombly, a former U.S. Forest Service employee who heads the plant, said it could provide a market for owners of private timberland and federal land managers who might otherwise burn waste from forest thinning projects.

"One of these plants in my estimation might pencil out to 10 or 15 jobs, and we could easily have three or four in this area around Halfway, Baker City, Trout Creek and other places in Baker and Union counties," said Twombly, president of Biochar Products. He conducted a recent tour of the plant for timber owners and others from northeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho.

The Baker City Herald reported that Twombly started investigating alternatives to burning waste from forest health projects in slash piles. He said he found a prototype machine that can turn wood and agricultural wastes such as chicken manure into fertilizer and fuel, so he resigned from the Forest Service to set up the prototype plant under an agency grant.

The plant's products are being tested for their content and energy capacity, he said. So far, the results have been consistent whether the waste was cottonwood, cedar, juniper, agricultural wastes or chicken manure, he added.

One problem, he said, is that the prototype machinery is too large and needs such frequent adjustment that it's not good for a mobile operation best suited for forest health and fuels reduction projects.

One forest owner said he's excited about the potential of biochar soil amendments to reduce water use for crops. That could mean better chances of crop survival in droughts, increased yields and higher-value crops, Steve Edwards said.

"It creates the potential to turn a lot of marginal farmland into productive farmland," said Edwards, a forest owner and president of the Baker County Private Woodlands Association.

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