Poplar Wood Production and Marketing

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					George Snell

Poplar wood production and marketing
A John Oldacre Foundation Award


                                 I am 39 years old and married to Anna, with two daughters
                                 and a son, aged 8, 6 and 5. My background is in agri-culture,
                                 having been involved in the family business after leaving
                                 Cirencester Agricultural College.

                                 In the 1990s we grew field vegetables. We persevered but
                                 margins were almost non-existent and these enterprises

In 1992 The Poplar Tree Company was set up within the partnership allowing the business to
diversify into the forestry industry with much longer rotations and greater flexibility. Moving
from an intensive, precise, industry dealing with the multiples and fast-selling perishables has
allowed me to see the potential of utilising agricultural practices within the forestry industry.

Subject and objectives

Having realised the potential for poplar in the UK, we needed to develop our ideas for the
future. The purpose of this study is to investigate the methods of production and marketing in
the countries with a tradition of growing poplar.

My objective is to understand why the business has developed so well in other countries; to
see what opportunities there are for the UK farmer to diversify into poplar woodland and to
see what advantages and disadvantages we have compared to European and South
American producers.

Poplar production in the UK

The native black poplar (Populus nigra) frequently features in records dating back to the 16th
and 17th century and is now described as one of our rarest and most distinguished trees.
Groups of black poplar and single trees may be seen alongside rivers and streams. The
timber has traditionally been used for the construction of cart bottoms and for interior joinery,
floor boarding and also in agricultural and domestic buildings.

The speed of growth and the ease of breeding and crossing with other varieties
(hybridisation) has meant that poplars were amongst the first forest trees to be domesticated
and grown commercially in plantations.

Hybrid poplars were first introduced into Britain in 1750. The improvement in hybrid selection
has continued; the idea being to produce fast growing, disease resistant varieties for timber
production. A far cry from the original sprawling Black Poplar.

Stands of mature hybrid poplar, which were originally planted for the match production
company Bryant and May, can be seen in small plantations across the country. Now that the
match market has gone the management of these plantations has been neglected.

There is only one poplar processing company in the UK that specialises in rotary peeling of
poplar to produce veneers. Other than this specialist user, poplar is sold to the pallet market
and hardwood pulp market where good quality is not demanded and prices are low. There is
an opportunity to change and look for new markets.

Poplar has been used extensively all over the world for centuries. If we link this opportunity
with the present Government’s policy to reduce agricultural surpluses and encourage
non-agricultural use of the land, planting a fast growing, hardwood tree would seem to be a
sensible option. Government grants are also available to encourage new plantings.

World wide poplar

Worldwide the production and marketing of poplar is quite different to that of the UK. There
has been a great deal of research into improvements of poplar for timber and also to increase
disease resistance. There is probably more research being carried out on poplar than any
other tree species in the world.

The study

Choosing the countries to visit was difficult because of the worldwide importance of poplar
cultivation. Following consultation with universities, the Forestry Commission and advice from
the International Poplar Commission, I chose the the following.

      Country           Poplar area (ha)         Reason for Visiting
      Chile                  20,000              One major producer and marketing

      Argentina               55,000             The industry

      Spain                  110,000             Major processor

      France                 220,000             Major producer

      Italy                  110,000             The leader in poplar production,
                                                 marketing and research.

To clearly understand the market for poplar wood, we need firstly to look at variety selection
and growing methods in the countries visited and how their systems have been adapted to
produce the timber for the markets that are available.

New varieties

The process of selection of new varieties starts with an abundance of genetically varied
material and ends up with a limited number of cultivars to be grown commercially on a large

The seeds used in this process could come from selected or unselected parents from the wild
or domesticated populations. The poplar tree is either male or female (they are dioecious)
unlike most other trees which have separate male and female flowers on the same tree

Poplar breeding is now in an expansion phase. Belgium, Canada, France, Italy and the
United States of America have their own major breeding programmes. The criteria for the
selection of new plant material are fast growth, wide adaptability, resistance to disease and to
frost, straight and cylindrical stems, homogenous white and resistant wood suitable for pulp,
boards, beams and peeling.

To increase the availability of new varieties a multiplication programme of the original has to
be carried out. This is very easy as poplars will grow from un-rooted cuttings.

Production methods and site requirements
Poplars are firstly grown in a nursery for one or two years. The annual growth is exceptional.
Some varieties will grow over 7 metres in two years. This new growth (set) is cut off and
planted out in the field.

There are two methods of planting.

+     The unrooted set is planted into a bored hole of between 0.8m and 1m deep.

+     A hole is dug to the water table (approx. 2m – 3m deep) and the set is planted into this

All the countries visited have a tradition in the growing of the poplar tree as a crop, not as a
woodland, and their methods and criteria are very similar. The perfect poplar site would
always have the following four criteria:

+     Flat land: The advantage of flat land is that all operations are made easier from the
      cultivation to the planting, management and harvesting. It is also better for irrigation
      and, most importantly, the growing tree has a consistent growing condition. This
      ultimately affects the timber.

+     High water table: The poplar tree is very reliant on water to help its growth and this is
      one of the most important criteria when looking for a suitable planting site. In some
      regions of Spain where the water table is 2m or 3m deep, the trees are planted to this

+     Good access: The volume of production per hectare of land is quite staggering and so
      ease of access is most important.

+     Shelter: The wind has a debilitating affect on the tree’s growth, not only in the speed of
      growth, but also the form of the tree. A bent tree is of very little value. The wind
      increases the stresses within the timber.


To produce a quality wood it is most important to produce a knot-free timber. This is achieved
through early and correct pruning. The removal of branches from the trunk before the trunk
diameter is greater than 10cm is critical if the wood is going to be used in the peeler market.

Poplar wood characteristics and properties

Poplar wood is a plain, pale coloured, lightweight, hardwood timber. It is very tough and
strong for its weight. It has a straight grain and a somewhat woolly texture.

Poplar wood markets

Unlike most other timbers, poplar wood is not generally grown to be sold as saw logs to
produce boards, etc. The unique characteristics of the timber and the shape of the tree,
makes poplar ideal for rotary peeling to produce veneers.

Once a clean, white sheet of wood is produced, the opportunities are endless. Plywood
manufacture, glulam beams and multi-laminar structures are examples. The factories I visited
in Spain and Italy producing plywood each need over 200 ha of poplar wood per year to keep
production going. In Chile the veneers were being cut to produce matches, lollipop sticks,
chopsticks and tongue depressors.

Environmental uses
The production of the perfect tree and the processing potential for the timber have been
discussed. There are, however, a number of other poplar tree uses that provide important
financial and environmental benefits and should therefore not be overlooked.

Wind breaks: Poplar is ideal to plant around fields, vineyards and orchards as a windbreak.

Soil conservation: Erosion is a big problem in areas of intensive farming. Poplar woodland
will stabilise the soil.

Water purification: Planting poplar woodland between an intensive agricultural crop and a
watercourse helps to intercept the leached nitrates from the crop before they enter the
watercourse. This has a huge environmental benefit.

Green filters: Sewerage waste water can no longer be applied to agricultural land where food
production takes place. A well-managed poplar woodland can provide the perfect filter.

Carbon storage: Poplar woodland will store large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere
through its lifetime. In fact it has been calculated that a fast growing poplar plantation will
store, on average, 9 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year. This ability to store carbon has
huge financial and environmental benefits.

Agro-forestry: Throughout Europe there is a move towards trees and crops. The poplar tree
is used widely for this purpose because of its ease of establishment and speed of growth. It
will provide shade and shelter for livestock and protection from the elements for many crops.

Biomass: Growing poplar for coppice is practised throughout Europe. The drive to meet the
Kyoto Agreement to combat global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels has led to
renewed interest in biomass production. The rapid growth rate of poplar lends itself well to
biomass production.

Poplar planting for other markets

+     Not all farmers in the UK are interested in managing yet another crop. They are keener
      on diversifying out of agriculture into the tourist industry; “farming people”. Government
      grants in the UK help with the establishment of new woodlands. There is additional
      funding if people are allowed access. If these two are linked, there is an unlimited

+     It is more appealing to the public to spend their leisure time in a woodland than an open
      field. Center Parcs is a classic example. Poplar woodland establishes quickly and
      easily and, if planted with other species, will help create an interesting woodland.

+     Many farms and estates could benefit from a poplar enterprise. As new markets
      develop, and they will, the benefits of the species and its rapid growth offer exciting
      prospects for the future.


My trip has confirmed my belief in the potential for poplar timber. I am convinced that the
special attributes of the species offer a unique opportunity for farmers and landowners in the

In the countries visited, farmers are growing poplar trees as a crop, not as a woodland.

The trees are planted in the most suitable sites and managed to the highest standard.

The rotary peeler market requires large volumes of clean, knot-free timber. Managed poplar is

The valuable plywood market is reliant on the supply of poplar wood. There must be sufficient
volume, continuity, consistency and quality. Without these the plywood production industry
cannot survive.

The farmer is required to produce quality only, and he is well paid for such production.

Farmers work closely with the market. As with any marketing plan, the raw material source
and the market outlet for the production must be secure.


+        No business can survive without change. The opportunity for poplar is a classic
         example of the need for innovation. The market potential is huge. We need to re-think
         and plan for the future.

+        Poplar trees must be grown in a large enough volume to supply the market.

+        The UK farmer must take some of his land out of agricultural production and plant
         poplar trees.

+        Care must be taken to plant the trees where they will perform best.

+        Growing poplar must be managed as an agricultural crop and not as a woodland.

+        Initially the planting should be limited to 300 – 350 ha per annum. (Enough to supply
         one large plywood plant).
+        The planting, management and marketing should be controlled by one or two

+        Once the production of the raw material is guaranteed, a rotary peeling factory should
         be built as close to production as possible.

+        The idea of a brand new industry relying on home produced raw material for the home
         market must be appealing to the Government for financial support.

George Snell,
Lower Lulham,
HR2 9JJ.

Tel: 01981 250253.