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Water Quality Impacts of Willow in an Agricultural Landscape


Multifunctional landscape design in the agricultural sector attempts to improve the resiliency and sustainability of agricultural systems while providing additional benefits. However, as new strategies are developed to address multiple needs associated with the water, energy, and food nexus, the effectiveness and efficiency of such designs need to be evaluated.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Environmental Quality, researchers report on a six-year field study that assesses the strategic placement of short rotation shrub willow buffers into a continuous corn rotation field in central Illinois on water quality and biomass production for bioenergy. This design reduces land conflicts with grain crop production by targeting marginal land (land underproductive or of high environmental risk) where placement of willow on the landscape has the highest potential to reduce nitrate nitrogen leaching while boosting bioenergy production (as a nutrient reduction and recovery system).

This ongoing study found that willows reduced nitrate leaching into the shallow subsurface water by 88% by the end of their first growth cycle, suggesting that this is an effective nutrient reduction strategy. Possible soil health benefits including increasing subsurface soil organic matter may elude to additional benefits of willow production. However, low calculated willow biomass will need to be readdressed in the future to assess major contributing factors.

Read the full open access article in JEQ.