Froling TruckFrom January 2012 through the end of June 2018, the Northern Forest Center had provided incentives or other assistance to 163 wood pellet boiler projects, and we estimate that they’ve contributed a total of $3.5 million to the regional economy. Together the boiler owners have spent approximately $1.7 million on locally-made wood pellets and have cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 4,000 tons.

We calculate the impact of our wood heat program so we can explain the need for supportive public policies, continued funding for conversions from oil to sustainable wood pellet heat, and more. But what’s behind the numbers? It’s time to dust off your algebra skills and find out!

Estimates are necessarily based on assumptions and choices, and we’ve put a lot of thought into deciding how best to calculate the benefits of switching to wood pellet heat. We use a combination of pellet consumption data, fuel prices and a conservative economic multiplier to account for the increased amount of money circulating in the local economy rather than being sent outside the region to pay for fuel from elsewhere. We balance precision with practicability and believe our methodology produces a well-reasoned estimate of the impact that switching to wood pellets for heat has on the region’s economy and environment.

nfc staff joe shortCenter Vice President Joe Short co-authored a blog with Clifford Deaton of the Aspen Institute to showcase the many ways the Farm Bill is crucial to supporting rural communities, families and entrepreneurship.

You might be surprised at the breadth of the programs in the Farm Bill, and worried about whether critical programs will be adequately funded when the US House and Senate reconcile their differing versions of the bill. Read what they have to say.

 

By Rob Riley

I grew up working on a farm and eating truly local food out of my grandmother’s sprawling garden. I love eating local food and knowing that when I do, I'm supporting a system – from my neighboring farmer to the town store. What I’m conflicted about—is it irritation or more envy? —is the "Eat More Kale" bumper sticker that seems to have convinced a huge number of people to eat more kale (or just put on a bumper sticker). But the sticker also implies that by eating more kale (and other local foods) we are keeping our regional economy going and maintaining traditional working lands. 

Farm and forest in Barnet, VT (Monkman photo)Yes, farming is an essential and iconic part of the working landscape in the Northern Forest region, but most of our land is in forests, not in farms. What are we doing to celebrate and keep the forested part of our working landscape forested and working? The general population embraces the idea that eating more kale sustains local farms, but it doesn’t seem to be as popular to use forest products to support our local forests.

Over the past 100 years, New England has swung from 80% cleared land for agricultural use back to roughly 80% forested. Yet the obsession with local food means we’re focusing considerable financial, political and social energy on less than 20% of the land. Farms are highly visible and give us great views of forests, mountains, towns and rivers; they’re important, but the reality is that farms and forests together comprise our fabled working landscape, and our regional agricultural and forest economies are interconnected. And for quality of life we need both forests and fields to provide habitat, open space, clean air and water, recreational space and more.

We’ve somehow arrived at a time when significant investments support agriculture and the increase in value-added agricultural production and farmland conservation, with less regard for forests and the value of the forest products economy. Fields have become separated from forests.

This has been a frustrating week. Maybe for the thousandth time, I’m reminded that fuel bills for most New Englanders are completely subject to the decisions made by far-away investors and global leaders, most of whom are radically disconnected from the people whose lives their actions intimately affect. 

Whether it’s perceptions that “Saudi Arabia and Russia are having a strong and fruitful collaboration to keep the price of oil high and rising” from NPR or the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal causing oil prices to “swing wildly,” as CNN Money and others described the market on May 8, geopolitical events will keep people guessing about what will come next and how it will affect their ability to pay for heat and transportation. Chris Brooks wood chip pile crpd

It doesn’t have to be this way. Options for greater domestic energy independence are well within reach that can help insulate us from international events. And since the Northeast consumes the vast majority of the heating oil in the U.S., it’s especially important that we look for alternatives. Even so, the shift toward renewable heating – especially the high-efficiency, automated wood pellet boilers and furnaces the Northern Forest Center promotes—is slow. 

High oil prices make automated wood heat more economically attractive, so it's good news for the wood heating industry that oil prices exceeded $70/barrel on May 7 for the first time since 2014. And yet, it’s infuriating to think about the struggling families, towns, farmers, loggers and small businesses that will all be hit hard by these higher fossil fuel prices. 

Wood pellet heat is inherently local—it’s immediately tangible and accessible. Anyone  northern New England or New York can see where their wood pellets come from over the course of an afternoon—moving from the forests that produce the wood, to the mills that process the pellets, to the local companies that deliver them. We can talk to landowners about their forest stewardship goals, hear from loggers about changes to the forest economy that have made their livelihood more precarious, watch harvests that foster long-term forest health, and, at the end of the day, feel proud when we heat with wood. You can’t do that with fossil fuels (nor would many of us want to hang out on, say, an oil field in the Middle East!).