It all began with the oil crisis

Growing energy crops is one of mankind’s most recent types of crop cultivation. It was the oil crisis in the 1970s that paved the way for humans to grow goat willow (Salix caprea) and osier (Salix viminalis) for energy purposes in a systematic way. The Swedish professor Gustav Siren was responsible for taking the first steps in this direction.

In Sweden 70 per cent of the land area is covered by forest and the population has a centuries-old tradition of earning a living from the forest. As early as 1903 Sweden passed one of the world’s first environmental laws. It states that anyone who chops down an area of forest is also responsible for replanting it. As one example of what this means in practice, the Holmen Group, which owns Iggesund Paperboard’s mill in Workington, annually produces 30 million pine and spruce seedlings to meet this replanting requirement.

However, this strong tradition of working with the forest does not include energy crops. In fact, the tradition has led Swedes to be sceptical about energy crops – perhaps because foresters basically regard the most common energy crop species as undesirable forest weeds that should be removed. During the middle of the 20th century herbicides were widely used in the Swedish forest industry before being banned in 1981 after a fierce environmental debate. The only permitted exception was for battling the worst enemy of young tree plants, the large pine weevil. Recently, though, alternative methods are being developed even for the pine weevil. For some years now the Holmen Group’s plant nursery in Iggesund, Sweden has been coating its young pine and spruce seedlings with wax instead of using herbicides.

Growing SRC willow for energy in Sweden is a farming occupation combined with the country’s forest tradition. Forestry has contributed logistical solutions whilst farming is responsible for the planting and harvesting technology. Since the 1990s the development of salix varieties and cultivation know-how has created good conditions for a profitable crop. That is why Iggesund’s venture into energy crop cultivation in northern England and Scotland is arousing interest among farmers throughout Europe.