Agropoplar, an initiative promoted by the UG to boost poplar cultivation in the Mediterranean basin

ProPopulus Team

Given the steep decline of poplar plantations, not just in Spain, but in Europe, the timber industry in the EU faces a drastic drop in the supply of this raw material affecting the entire sector. In Andalusia, for example, “the situation is critical”, explains Antolino Gallego, University of Granada Professor and coordinator of the Agropoplar initiative that intends to create a network of agroforestry poplar plots for experimentation and evaluation of the quality of the agroforestry wood versus that of the forest in five Mediterranean countries (Spain, France, Italy, Tunisia, Portugal).

Agroforestry includes various forms of integration of trees and crops, such as intercropping between rows of trees, scattered trees or forests. On the other hand, farm trees help restore biodiversity in agricultural landscapes while increasing soil fertility and the ability to cope with changing climates, generating higher incomes in the meantime. Poplar rows in farmlands are an excellent example of such farming systems. They promote biodiversity and, by generating yields of timber (wood-fuel and fodder), diversify revenue sources and increase income.

Also, according to the Circularity Gap Report (2019), the interest in wood as a structural element in construction is increasing due to that, unlike steel or concrete, wood is neutral or negative in carbon and is easier to recycle and reuse. As a result, the building industry’s interest in timber is growing, generating an increasing pressure on natural forests. Endogenous species of fast-growing trees, such as poplar, can provide a sustainable response to this problem.

In this sense, Gallego explains that Agropoplar proposes to create a network of trials of agroforestry systems (SAS) composed of crops and poplars selected for environmental sustainability in the five countries of the Mediterranean basin already mentioned. In addition, it is proposed to collect the resulting experimental data and promote development dynamics in rural areas by evaluating the impact on biodiversity, agro-system and ecosystem services and the profitability of SAS poplar plantations. Also, apply advanced tools and methodologies based on acoustic and infrared spectrometry techniques for the classification of agroforestry poplar wood in both standing and laboratory trees.

Another Agropoplar objective, is to increase the value of SAS farm wood under a circular economy perspective, facilitating the production of engineered wood products (EWP); develop and executing marketing campaigns to spread the benefits of the SAS poplars and transfer any relevant knowledge to Mediterranean countries with limited wood resources.

Gallego explains that in Andalusia, for example, as a result of the economic crisis of 2008 the poplar plantations have been disappearing replaced by other crops such as asparagus or garlic, which are more profitable for the farmer. Since then, in that autonomous community the area dedicated to forestry has been reduced by 60%, explains the professor, to stay in some 3,000 hectares at present. It is not an isolated event, since arboreal crops have been abandoned throughout the country, mainly due to the canon policy and the delays in planting and cutting permits by the Confederations that have discouraged private owners, who have decided to invest in other crops instead of poplars, according to data revealed during the Second Chopo Symposium, which took place in Valladolid in October 2018.

As a consequence, the chain of transformation of poplar, which contributes some 11,000 direct jobs in rural areas in Spain, faces a drop in the supply of European product that is already a reality. Even more dramatic, according to data provided by the Association of Manufacturers of Plywood Board (AEFCON), from 2020 there will not be enough wood of national production to supply the industry, a situation that will be further accentuated in 2023. Anyte this situation says Gallego, the industry has the alternative of importing raw materials, of course, but this implies higher production costs that will be transferred to the final product and, in the case of importing raw materials from countries such as China, it does not appear whether it comes from forests and plantations managed in a sustainable way.

To counteract this situation, the University of Granada and the IFAPA-Institute for Agricultural Research and Training and Fisheries) are promoting and organizing initiatives such as the Andalusia Poplar Board (Mesa del Chopo de Andalucía), sponsored by the Social Council of the University of Granada and in which different public entities take part (Junta de Andalucía, Diputación de Granada, Ministry of Agriculture-CNCh), associations of owners, industrial , poplar plantation management companies, investigating agents (UGR, IFAPA), social agents, AEFCON and Junta de Castilla y León as a reference.

On the other hand, explains Gallego, “on a national scale and within a European proposal that we are preparing, we intend to boost plantations in southwestern Europe (France, Portugal and Spain) by promoting the association between producers, and achieving that the public administrations offer tax advantages to poplar producers. ” Now that the deadline for requesting aid from the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU begins, for example, poplar growers will not be able to ask for it, simply because the program considers the poplar plantations as forests and not as plantations. Since growers have no annual return, the lack of fiscal incentives and aid to the industry are some of the reasons why owners have abandoned arboreal crops. “Forestry is not recognized as agriculture. That populiculture is recognized within this package of direct aid could help reverse the trend”.

Agroforestry, which is what Agropoplar proposes, includes various forms of integration of trees and crops, such as intercropping between rows of trees, scattered trees or forests. In addition, plantation trees help restore biodiversity in agricultural landscapes while increasing soil fertility and the ability to cope with changing climates, generating higher incomes in the process. The rows of poplars on the farmland are an excellent example of such farming systems. They promote biodiversity and, by generating wood harvests, diversify the sources of income and increase the income of the owners.

On the other hand, the interest in wood as a structural element in construction is increasing, according to the Circularity Gap Report (2019) since, unlike steel or concrete, wood is neutral or negative in carbon and is easier to recycle and reuse. As a result, the industry’s interest in timber is growing, generating increasing pressure on natural forests. Endogenous species of fast-growing trees, such as poplar, can provide a sustainable response to this problem.

In this sense, Gallego explains that Agropoplar proposes to create a network of trials of silvo-arable agroforestry systems composed of crops and poplars selected for environmental sustainability in the five countries of the Mediterranean basin already mentioned. In addition, it is proposed to collect the resulting experimental data and promote development dynamics in rural areas by evaluating the impact on biodiversity, agro-ecosystem services and the profitability of agroforestry poplar plantations. It is also intended to apply advanced tools and methodologies based on acoustic and infrared spectrometry techniques for the classification of agroforestry poplar wood in both standing trees and laboratory planks.

Another objective of different initiatives of different European partners is to increase the value of poplar wood under a circular economy perspective, demonstrating its use for wood construction, as well as developing and executing a marketing campaign to raise awareness about the benefits of poplar, and transfer relevant knowledge to Mediterranean countries with limited timber resources.