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Company Thinks Frost-Resistant Eucalyptus Can Thrive in Southern Alabama

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- Ben Raines, Alabama Live, April 23, 2010

A field of eucalyptus trees near Loxley may represent the future of agriculture in the coastal South. After several years' worth of genetic tweaking, South Carolina-based ArborGen says it has created the first ever frost-tolerant eucalyptus -- hardy down to about 16 degrees, meaning it will likely survive anywhere south of Interstate 10 in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The bare skeletons of hundreds of eucalyptus stand out at an experimental plantation just off Ala. 59. ArborGen's Mike Cunningham said the company thinks most of their still-bare trees survived the coldest winter in years, even though most other trees in south Alabama have been fully leafed out for weeks.

ArborGen, created in 2000, is a partnership between what is now MeadWestvaco Corp. and International Paper Co. Since then, the company has joined with the Department of Energy in a biofuels project and has annual tree stock sales approaching $300 million.

The company applied for permission to begin commercial sale of its frost-tolerant eucalyptus in 2008, but has not yet received a ruling.

If the U.S. Department of Agriculture grants approval, ArborGen executives say farmers will begin raising thousands of acres of the genetically modified eucalyptus within three years, providing raw material for paper and energy production. Among the fastest growing hardwoods on earth -- reaching more than 50 feet in two years -- the eucalyptus could take the place of loblolly pine on some of the 9 million acres of farmed trees in the Southeast, the company has said.