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Peet harvest machines in a field.

Sphagnum peat is collected with vacuum harvesters, which are either self-propelled or pulled behind a tractor. After vacuuming, the peat is sent to the processing plant where it's screened to remove wood and other debris. It is then compressed into plastic bags, sealed, and shipped off to greenhouses and garden centers throughout the country.

Possibilities in peat

By June Kallestad

From eNews, February 24, 2004

If you buy tomatoes in the grocery store or plants for your spring gardens, then you know the value of peat. The slowly decomposed plant debris makes fertile soil for strong, healthy vegetables and flowers.

But where does it come from?

It takes soggy soil and a cool climate to form high-quality peat. Minnesota holds one third of the peat resources in the lower 48 states--some seven million acres-second only to Alaska. In fact, one county in particular, Koochiching in north central Minnesota, has more peat bogs than dry land. But since peat lands are wetlands, with all the state and federal protection rights they deserve, any development of those areas is done with care--and plenty of paperwork.

Peat experts at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) helped Koochiching officials through the extensive permit process that will allow the harvesting of a portion of the county's one million acres of peat lands for home and commercial gardening uses. Berger Horticultural Products, Ltd. of Canada will use 840 acres to gather high-quality Sphagnum moss peat, bringing new jobs to an area of Minnesota that's lacking in economic opportunities.

"We don't have a lot of land here for development and housing," says Mike Hanson, Koochiching county commissioner. "If we can't use our natural resources, we can't live here. Our families can't make a living. This project is a great boon for the area."

What exactly is Sphagnum peat moss?

Sphagnum moss is the live, growing plant found in bogs or marshy environments. Sphagnum moss peat, on the other hand, is the partially decomposed moss that builds up over time in those wet conditions beneath the moss. Harvesters remove the top few inches of the live Sphagnum moss before collecting the peat from the bog. Although Sphagnum moss peat contains few nutrients, it absorbs added nutrients and releases them over time, as the plants require. It also has a high water-holding capacity, making it popular among gardeners as a soil conditioner.

Source: NRRI peat group

The state, county, and nearby city of Big Falls will reap significant economic benefits. Based on the analysis provided in the environmental impact statement, the project will result in net benefits of $2 million annually; five full-time, year-round jobs and 40 full-time seasonal jobs; and lease fees and royalties averaging in excess of $100,000 per year. At peak production, the bog will yield more than 150,000 cubic yards of Sphagnum moss peat per year--the type that commands the highest market value.

This winter, trees from 80 to 100 acres are being removed from the site, and come spring, drainage ditches will be dug around and through the bog to prepare for the harvesting. Construction of processing facilities, and subsequent peat shipments, will begin in the next two to three years.

But the work doesn't end there.

In 35 to 40 years when the harvesting is done, the site will be rehabilitated back to a bog using a restoration plan developed by NRRI and Berger. After years of extensive research, NRRI scientists have found that they can decrease the time it takes to revegetate harvested peat lands by half--just 5 to 10 years instead of 10 to 20 years. The restoration process involves recontouring the land, replanting fragments of native vegetation, and maintaining the water level. A new covering of Sphagnum moss and other peat land plants will jumpstart the slow accumulation process.

NRRI and Berger worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to complete the project's environmental review process and acquire the necessary permits.

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