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Green Acres

From green power timber to revenue-producing green waste, Bill Cowern is harnessing global forces for local gain

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Cowern, 64, moved to Kauai in 1989 after a career overseeing construction projects for computer companies. He arrived to watch the collapse of the island’s sugar industry, and looked on with interest at the abandonment of thousands of acres of farmland that had been in productive use for more than a century. Some were left fallow, and others converted to low-value uses like cattle ranching.

For Cowern, whose degree from the University of Massachusetts was in forestry, there was an opportunity here for trees.

“The return seemed to be a lot better than growing cattle,” he says.

He sat down with his initial partners and talked about likely varieties. He knew how to assess their growth potential and how to calculate their timber value. What he didn’t know, he quickly learned. “We leased 50 acres from Grove Farm and proceeded to make most of the mistakes,” he says.

"For us, the whole issue is sustainability.  We believe the oil issue is just going to get worse and worse, and it will impact the island of Kauai," Cowern says.

With a small crew, he planted hundreds and then thousands of trees. Many were high-value hardwoods, like Brazilian rosewood and Queensland maple. (A technical note: Albizia is technically a hardwood, although its timber is light and soft. The term softwood generally applies to angiosperms like pines.) But Cowern was also looking for trees that could multi-task —that could be used in many different ways, to match an unknown market when the trees matured 10 to 20 or more years from planting.

Among his favorites is Eucalyptus deglupta, a stately tree with a rainbow of bark colors from which it gets the common name, rainbow gum. It can be used for framing timber or siding, flooring or door skins, or even as attractive solid posts. It could also support a cabinet-making industry. So Cowern planted the trees, secure that he’d be able to find a use for their timber, no matter what the demand in the state’s and the nation’s wood industries looked like decades hence.

As he studied the economics of tree farming, Cowern realized that fertilizer was a huge expense, and that the cost of fertilizer, much of which is produced using fossil fuels, was only going up.

His solution was albizia, a weedy tree that had been imported to Hawaii in the early 1900s and had been planted in the 1930s as a reforestation crop. The albizia, a member of the pea family, is a nitrogen-fixing plant. Like many of its relatives, it can grow in poor soil by converting nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form the tree can use. What does all that mean? When the tree’s leaves fall, their nitrogen-rich quality fertilizes the soil. For free.

So Hawaiian Mahogany interspersed albizia trees among its high-value trees, to provide them with free fertilizer. Financially, the arrangement made sense a decade ago. Today, it looks like genius. Nitrogen-based fertilizers have tripled in price from 2007 to 2008. The only hitch was that the fast-growing albizia quickly outgrew its neighbor trees and formed a towering canopy. Cowern quickly realized he needed to find some way to use the massive volume of albizia he was growing. 

Over time, he discovered that albizia was an even better multitasker than his prized rainbow gums, because virtually every part of the tree had potential value. The wood, for starters, is comparatively soft and light, but its timber qualities permit its use as framing lumber. It takes wood treatment readily, and once treated with a copper and borate bath, it can be left in contact with the ground without rotting. At his home, Cowern uses it as exterior deck flooring.

But then there are its leaves. They are high in both nitrogen and protein. Cattle can be fed albizia leaves raw or ground up, and Hawaiian Mahogany is now conducting tests with local ranchers to determine whether it can replace grain for “finishing” beef cattle. If so, ranchers could avoid having to ship their young cattle to Mainland feedlots before slaughter. Cowern says the leaves can also be dried, ground up and used directly on the soil as a natural, organic fertilizer. With the high cost of fertilizers made with natural gas, the albizia fertilizer business looks economically attractive, he says.

“Albizia happens to be probably the most potent nitrogen-fixing plant on Earth. The leaves contain 4 percent nitrogen — it’s an organic NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) fertilizer. This business would not have been viable a year ago, but in the past year, the price of fertilizer has skyrocketed,” he says.

The bark can also be used as cattle feed. It has nearly the level of protein as the leaves, and a higher potassium level.

“So every four years, we can harvest the tops, harvest the logs and harvest the bark,” he says.

Cowern is seeking investors for the cattle-feed and fertilizer businesses. He says a bag of dried albizia provides an organic, slow-release form of nitrogen that is readily available to plants. He figures he can profitably sell it at roughly the same price as nonorganic fertilizer and one-third the price of organic fertilizers. A stand of albizia trees could produce about $800 per acre, per year, from its “canopy fertilizer” if the product were sold at what Cowern calls a “low entry price” of $200 per ton. Cowern says the trees are so productive that he believes he can harvest the leaves annually without significantly impacting their production of wood for sale as fuel.

Cowern adds that, when the trees are harvested, the sun reaches guinea grass growing below. In the albizia-fed, nitrogen-rich soil, even the guinea grass has high nutrient levels and can be bundled into hay bales for animal feed, Cowern says. The albizia stumps quickly resprout and in four years, the crop is ready for another harvest, he says.

But all is not rosy for the “miracle” albizia tree. It is also a severe threat to the natural environment. Its feather-light seeds fly far on the wind, and the tree outcompetes virtually every other plant in the environment. “We’re finding it miles away from existing stands. That’s the thing that sounded the alarm for me. And once it does get into a new area, it pretty much takes over,” says Trae Menard, Kauai program director for The Nature Conservancy in Hawaii.

Menard lauds Cowern’s renewable-energy initiatives, but is urging him to avoid planting any more albizia. Cowern isn’t convinced that planting more albizia in already-infested areas will cause much of a problem, but true to form, he is looking at alternatives — including a giant form of the common weed haole koa, Leucaena leucocephala.

Like albizia, it grows quickly, fixes nitrogen, can be used as biomass fuel, and its foliage can be fed to livestock. Unlike albizia, there are forms that produce few or no seeds — so the threat of spreading is limited.

Cowern has plenty of acreage left to conduct his further forestry experiments. Of the 3,700 acres Hawaiian Mahogany has under lease, 1,200 acres are planted in trees, about half of it albizia and half eucalyptus species. Another 1,200 or so acres are former sugar fields that are now growing “volunteer” albizia trees which can be profitably logged before the fields are planted. Hawaiian Mahogany has about 1,000 more acres that can be planted, but have not yet been, he says. The remaining leased acreage is not usable for tree farming.

The profitability of a timber industry is what started the venture, but the operation’s focus is continually readjusted with changes in the world markets.

“For us, the whole issue is sustainability. We believe the oil issue is just going to get worse and worse, and it will impact the island of Kauai,” Cowern says. “The cost of oil today is 1,100 percent higher than when I was planting some of these trees.”

Jan Tenbruggencate is a veteran Hawaii newswriter, science, journalist and author.  He has won awards from The Hawaiian Academy of Science, Conservation Counsil for Hawaii and hawaii Audubon Society.  His web site, raisingislands.com, covers environmental issues and scientific research statewide.

 

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