Watch This: USDA Secretary Discusses Climate Change, Sustainability

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) to discuss climate change and sustainability practices.

Vilsack and fellow panelists detailed efforts by the USDA and other organizations to increase sustainable crop and animal production and decrease greenhouse gas emissions and food waste on a domestic, as well as international, scale. He also reviewed recent innovations in sustainable building construction across the United States and around the globe.

Vilsack spoke about goals like reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 and planting 100,000 trees throughout urban areas in the coming years. The USDA expects the incorporation of more trees in these areas will lead to lower crime rates and energy costs and increased property value.

The Secretary focused on recent accomplishments in green building practices through the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other forest products. According to Vilsack, construction of CLT buildings such as the high rises in New York City and Portland, Oregon, provide timber industries opportunities for growth.

CLT has been studied here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) from many angles, including fire performance, possibilities for use in earthquake-prone regions, and the effects of moisture on CLT.

FPL researchers also played a role in the development of the U.S. CLT Handbook, which provides technical information for the design, construction, and implementation of CLT systems and illustrates applications adapted to current codes and standards.

“[CLT] is going to change the face and appearance of landscapes across the U.S.,” Vilsack said. “It’s going to create jobs in rural areas, and it’s helping to fuel, already, the decline in unemployment in rural areas.”

Vilsack discussed the benefits of building with CLT with Weyerhaeuser Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Timothy Punke.

Punke said in an attempt to “keep working forests as forests”, it’s important to make sure there is a market for forest products. In this way, sustainable building construction can help conserve forests.

Building with wood also uses less energy.  According to Punke, wood creates 26 percent less greenhouse gases than steel and 31percent less emissions than concrete.  Construction with wood also stores carbon in the wood, thus continuing the  cycle that keeps forests breathing. Punke mentioned the introduction of the Timber Innovation Act, which was proposed to accelerate research and development of buildings made of wood.

Other topics Vilsack discussed include renewable energy conservation efforts, drought adaptation strategies, and sustainable production of animal feed.  To learn more about what was discussed at the panel, see it for yourself:

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta

Nano work at FPL inspires public-private venture USDA Sec. Vilsack announces partnership: "We believe in the potential of wood- based nanotechnology ..."

Supervisory Research Chemist Alan Rudie tours Secretary Vilsack through FPL’s new Nanocellulose Pilot Plant and shows nanocellulose samples.

Supervisory Research Chemist Alan Rudie tours Secretary Vilsack through FPL’s new Nanocellulose Pilot Plant and shows nanocellulose samples.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday announced a public-private partnership to rapidly advance the development of the first U.S. commercial facility producing cellulosic nanomaterial, wood fiber broken down to the nanoscale. The partnership is between the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (Endowment) and the U.S. Forest Service.

“We believe in the potential of wood- based nanotechnology to strengthen rural America by creating sustainable jobs and adding timber value while also creating conservation opportunities in working forests,” said Vilsack. “This public- private partnership will develop high-tech outputs from the forest products sector, and promote the invention of renewable products that have substantial environmental benefits.”

The three-year partnership will promote cellulosic nanomaterial as a commercially viable enterprise by building on work done here at the Forest Products Laboratory. The partnership seeks to overcome technical barriers to large-scale wood-based nanotechnology processing, while filling gaps in the science and technology that are needed for commercialization. Initial funding comes from the Endowment and the Forest Service. The partnership is currently seeking additional public and private sector funding.

USDA, the Endowment, and the Forest Service have previously collaborated on numerous ventures: the potential of biotechnology to address forest health; technical advice given to African American forest landowners; and wood-to-energy projects that support the growth of jobs in rural America.

Together with partners, this new venture will:

  • Emphasize the potential of wood- based nanotechnology for the economy and the environment.
  • Overcome technical barriers to commercialization of wood- based nanotechnology.
  • Demonstrate commitment to creating high paying jobs in rural America through value- added manufacturing and high value products.
  • Showcase the commitment of USDA and the Forest Service to innovation.


Rate of shattered baseball bats remains low thanks to teamwork from FPL and Major League Baseball.


FPL wood experts examined thousands of shattered Major League bats. Photo credit: TECO, used by permission.

As the 2013 Major League Baseball (MLB) season slides into the All-Star break, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed some MLB-funded research via the Forest Products Laboratory resulting in significantly fewer shattered baseball bats.

“This innovative research by the U.S. Forest Service will make baseball games safer for players and fans across the nation,” said Secretary Vilsack. “The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory has once again demonstrated that we can improve uses for wood products across our nation in practical ways – making advancements that can improve quality of life and grow our economy.”

“Since 2008, the U.S. Forest Service has worked with Major League Baseball to help make America’s pastime safer,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “I’m proud that our collective wood ‘grain trust’ has made recommendations resulting in a significant drop in shattered bats, making the game safer for players as well as for fans.”

By testing and analyzing thousands of shattered Major League bats, Forest Service researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) have implemented changes in bat manufacturing that have led to significantly fewer shattered bats, especially maple bats. Even though maple bats are now more popular than ever among players, the rate of shattered maple bats is less than half it was five years ago.


Percentage of bats sold to Major League Baseball players, by type of wood, 2008-2012.

“These results would not have been possible without the outstanding work of the Forest Products Laboratory and the tireless efforts of its project coordinator, David Kretschmann,” says Daniel Halem, MLB’s Senior Vice President of Labor Relations. “Major League Baseball greatly appreciates the invaluable contributions of the Forest Products Laboratory and Mr. Kretschmann on this important issue.”

In 2008, the joint Safety and Health Advisory Committee of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association began working to address the frequency of bats breaking into multiple pieces. FPL research engineer Kretschmann and a team of wood experts looked at every broken Major League bat from July to September during the 2008 season. They found that inconsistency of wood quality, primarily the manufacturing detail “slope of grain,” for all species of wood used in Major League bat manufacture was the main cause of broken bats. Also, low-density maple bats were found to not only crack but shatter into multiple pieces more often than ash bats or higher-density maple bats. Called multiple-piece failure, shattered bats can pose a danger on the field and even in the stands.


The average number of broken bats per Major League game has remained relatively stable while the average number of shattered bats (multiple-piece failures) has dropped significantly since 2008.

Slope of grain refers to the straightness of the wood grain along the length of a bat. Straighter grain lengthwise means less likelihood for breakage.

slope-of-grainAbout 60,000 baseball bats are sold to Major League players every season. The vast majority of those bats, 64 and 33 percent respectively, are maple or ash. The overall rate of maple bats sold to Major League players fell by nearly 10 percent between 2008 and 2010, a time when the popularity of ash bats rose by about the same amount. Orders for maple began to rise during the 2011 season and are now at an even higher percentage of sales than in 2008.

With the help of TECO, a third-party wood inspection service, the manufacturing changes the Kretschmann-led team established have proven remarkably successful over time. Limits to bat geometry dimensions, wood density restrictions, and wood drying recommendations have all contributed to the dramatic decrease in multiple-piece failures, even as maple’s popularity is on the upswing.

The Forest Service research team has been watching video and recording details of every bat breakage since 2009. The team will continue monitoring daily video and studying broken bats collected during two two-week periods of the 2013 season, working to further reduce the use of low-density maple bats and the overall number of multiple-piece failures.

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USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack tours the FPL


FPL Leadership provided a summary of recent accomplishments to Secretary Vilsack and staff.

Led by Acting Director Michael Rains, the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) recently welcomed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for a tour through its unique and growing set of research facilities. Basic and applied research at FPL supports a number of USDA and Forest Service objectives, including forest management and restoration, the wise use of forest resources, job creation, and expanding economic opportunities through public-private partnerships on a national scale.

Throughout his tour, Secretary Vilsack talked with lab leadership about FPL’s diverse and innovative research efforts. Project leaders used the opportunity to field questions from the Secretary and explain work ranging from wood preservation and durability to advances in “green” building strategies and technology, use of beetle-killed trees, work on historic timber bridges, and advances in nanocellulose-related materials and applications.


Supervisory Microbiologist Carol Clausen briefs Secretary Vilsack on FPL’s Moisture Test Facility.

In FPL’s unique weather testing facility, project leader Carol Clausen described how wall assemblies can be tested for a range of harsh conditions, from heavy rain and extreme heat to high humidity and strong winds. “Developing durable building materials for green construction is a win-win situation for the Nation’s forests and the American people,” Clausen told Vilsack. “Utilizing beetle-killed trees to create value-added products, improves forest health, reduces the wildfire threat, and creates jobs.”


Supervisory Engineer Bob Ross discusses recent FPL research on a 2,500-year-old wooden mummy coffin.

In the Engineering Mechanics and Remote Sensing Laboratory, project leader Bob Ross brought out the big gun, an air-powered debris launcher used to develop protective safe-rooms in hurricane and tornado-prone areas. The Secretary watched as this unique air-cannon blasted an eight-foot 2×4 board into a test wall of cross-laminated material at over 100 miles per hour.


Supervisory Research Chemist Alan Rudie tours Secretary Vilsack through FPL’s new Nanocellulose Pilot Plant and shows nanocellulose samples.

In the world renowned Nanocellulose Pilot Plant, project leader Alan Rudie guided the Secretary through some of FPL’s most advanced equipment. Very strong and extremely versatile, nanocellulose materials can be used for a variety of applications including ballistic glass; small, powerful transistors; and heat-resistant additives for concrete, among many other uses.

Zhiyong Cai, project leader for FPL’s engineered composite science unit, demonstrated uses for cellulose nanofibrils material in bio-degradable electronic parts, high-performance insolation aerogel material, and regenerated cellulose braided reinforced fabric.

“The Secretary was very interested in nanotechnology applications in forest products research,” said Cai. “He was impressed with the impact that cellulose nanomaterial could bring to not only the forest products industry, but also electronics and other industries.”You can view more photos of the Secretary’s visit, including a slow-motion video of the hurricane-force 2×4 hitting a cross-laminated wall assembly, at FPL’s main site.

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By James T. Spartz, FPL Public Affairs Specialist.

Forest Service Awards Nearly $4 Million for Renewable Wood Energy Projects

The U.S. Forest Service announced the award of nearly $4 million in grants for wood energy projects around the country to help expand regional economies and create new jobs. The grants, totaling $3.92 million, will be distributed to 20 small businesses, tribes, and community groups to develop renewable energy projects that require engineering services.

“Woody biomass is a valuable part of America’s clean energy future as we work to decrease our dependence on foreign oil,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Projects like these will help grow local economies, create new jobs, and improve
and protect our forests. We will need architects and engineers to design these plants, skilled laborers to build them, and well-trained technicians to operate them.”

The projects will use woody material such as beetle-killed trees removed from forests to aid in wildfire prevention. The material will then be processed in bioenergy facilities to produce green energy for heating and electricity. The awardees will use funds from the Woody Biomass Utilization Grant program to secure the engineering services necessary for final design, permitting, and cost analysis.

“These grants continue our legacy of improving access to affordable energy for rural schools, community centers, universities, and small businesses.”

The grant program, administered by FPL’s Forest Products Marketing Unit, helps applicants complete the necessary design work needed to secure public or private investment for construction. Examples of projects include the engineering design of a woody biomass boiler for steam at a sawmill, a nonpressurized hot water system for a hospital or school, and a biomass power generation facility.

The Forest Service selected 20 small businesses and community groups as grant recipients for these awards in 2012. The recipients were chosen from 34 applications. According to the requirements, all 20 recipients provided at least 20 percent of the total project cost. Non-federal matching funds total nearly $8 million.

2012 Woody Biomass Utilization Grantees:
California Department of Forestry
Sacramento, California — $124,875

City of Montpelier
Montpelier, Vermont — $248,556
City of Nulato
Nulato, Alaska — $40,420

Clearwater Soil and Water Conservation District
Orofino, Idaho — $110,000

Coquille Economic Development Corporation
North Bend, Oregon — $145,000

County of Sullivan New Hampshire
Newport, New Hampshire — $250,000

Evergreen Clean Energy
Gypsum, Colorado — $250,000

F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company
Columbia Falls, Montana — $250,000

Greenway Renewable Power LLC
LaGrange, Georgia — $250,000

Longwood University
Farmville, Virginia — $250,000

Mineral Community Hospital
Superior Montana — $190,000

Nippon Paper Industries USA Co. Ltd
Port Angeles, Washington — $250,000

Oregon Military Department
Salem, Oregon — $250,000

Plumas Rural Services
Quincy, California — $70,125

Port Angeles Hardwood LLC
Port Angeles, Washington — $250,000

Quinault Indian Nation
Taholah, Washington — $205,000

Riley County Schools
Riley, Kansas — $90,000

Sanpete Valley Clean Energy LLC
Salem, Utah — $250,000

Southern Oregon University
Ashland, Oregon — $250,000

Yosemite/Sequoia Resource Conservation and Development Council
North Fork, California — $134,225