China: Oregon hybrid poplar grower finds greater opportunity planting forests in Asia

For GreenWood’s Nuss, China is part gold mine, part humanitarian effort. The company, with 60 employees, has raised $200 million from private investors to plug into several regions across China — and is on its way to an additional $100 million.

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Nuss started working with poplar trees in the late 1980s, after
graduating from Oregon State University with two engineering degrees.
He helped Potlatch Corp. start an industrial poplar plantation, which
led him to start GreenWood in 1998. GreenWood acquired the tree farm
in 2007. Today, Nuss’ 29,000-acre tree farm near Boardman is an oasis
sprouting from the unyielding high desert.

The company has an additional 6,000 acres of trees near Clatskanie. GreenWood’s plantations, a rarity in Oregon and the U.S., account for 75 percent of the state’s poplar production. Nuss, 44, has reasons beyond profit
for wanting to put down roots here. GreenWood’s poplars are being tested to combat desertification in China’s northern Korqin Desert, where once-pristine grasslands turn to dust. By government estimates, desertification now spreads over one-third of China, leading to a loss of 5 billion tons of topsoil a year. GreenWood’s land investments also will mean jobs for Chinese farmers, left behind in the country’s race forward, while growing desperately needed timberlands.

The investment will mean employment opportunities in his home state, Nuss says, as the company grows worldwide. “We’re creating a global entity, but we’re a U.S.-based company,” he says. “We’re also hoping to develop
tree farms in the U.S. and going to create jobs in the U.S.” But GreenWood faces the challenge of China’s collective land system, born of Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution in 1949.

Today, more than 55 percent of Chinese — estimates run as high as 850 million people — live in the countryside, where they work small, state-allocated plots. The system has been blamed for rural impoverishment, putting China’s urban-rural divide in stark relief, says Keliang Zhu, a lawyer with the Seattle-based Rural Development Institute. In Dong’e, the average
farmer makes 800 yuan a year, or $117. For urbanites, the average climbs to 13,000 yuan a year, or $1,900. “There’s a cautionary point to be made,” Zhu says. “Dealing with the government is much more efficient, but at the same time you need safeguards. You might get agood deal today, but tomorrow, those farmers will be protesting in front of your headquarters building.”

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