A sceptic looks at growing willow

We can do better by making more use ofour woodlands as fuel

I AM NOT yet convinced of the merits of growing willow commercially. When grown on a small acreage and for mopping up nutrient-rich water from septic tanks and other sources of pollution, willow is hard to beat and the annual crop can be sold for craft and floristry work. But that is on a tiny scale and I am still nervous at the thought of planting a larger acreage.

I have listened to all the arguments and, having attended a COFORD workshop in Clonmel recently on the topic of growing wood crops for fuel, I remain sceptical as I believe that we can do better by making more use of our woodlands as a fuel source.

The Danes are light years ahead of us in terms of using wood for both power generation and home heating and it was fascinating to listen to Pieter Kofman, who, apart from running a large business supplying wood chip to power plants in Denmark, is also a consultant on utilising wood for energy. Pieter took us through all the stages of establishing and growing willow and outlined how, if all the requirements are met, willow might indeed be a viable option for some farmers.

Firstly, you need scale and if a number of farmers can get together and operate in hundreds of acres rather than in tens of acres then the economies and opportunities increase. The big cash return from growing willow is in taking in waste by-products of towns and industries such as sewage sludge. Willow is a hungry feeder and rapidly takes up the nutrients from the sewage while providing a perfect, environmentally sound means of recycling such materials that would otherwise be expensively dumped in landfill. There is real cash to be made from providing the means of disposing of waste products and if you live in a suitable area where they are currently being dumped or expensively exported for further treatment, willow might well be worth considering.

There is, of course, also the end product of willow chip and some of the newly developed clones have astonishing annual growth rates producing a vast bulk of potential fuel. Willow chip, however, is low in woody fibre compared to forest wood chips and appears to be more difficult to handle and process before a saleable product is ready. Harvesting takes place during winter any time from November to March, after the leaves have been shed, and this can lead to serious problems on heavy land. The machinery is large and heavy and because of the great bulk of the crop many journeys are necessary.

We were shown pictures of bogged harvesting machinery, which reminded me of some awful harvests in the past with combines and grain trailers requiring two or more large tractors to pull them out of trouble.

In Sweden they try to harvest the willow crop when the ground is frozen hard but that kind of frost seems to be a thing of the past in Ireland.

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The use of crawler tractors was recommended and overall the thought of trying to carry out the willow harvest during a wet December or January did not encourage me, nor did the fact that some Danish power plants refuse to take in willow chip because of the high bark content.

THERE is good money to be made from growing fuel but, like any other successful commercial enterprise, it requires attention to detail and a clear understanding of what the consumer wants.

There are opportunities for the on-farm production of wood pellets but the initial cost of the machinery is high. Pellet burning stoves are simple and clean to use with most of the advantages of oil but without its high cost and environmental disadvantages. Chips would appear to have the potential to replace a large amount of our fuel imports for our power stations.

Wood chip is less costly to produce on-farm but it must be dried down below 10pc moisture content for use in home stoves and burners. Power stations can take in chip with a moisture content of as high as 30pc and this can be achieved by simply air-drying the logs for twelve months prior to chipping. This is common practice in Demark and there they even import logs from Russia for chipping and delivery to their power stations.

If it pays the Danes to import timber for fuel why can we in Ireland not use our own home grown timber in this manner?

I have heard it said that we do not have an energy policy in Ireland and our present governments attitude to alternative fuels would seem to bear this out. Why on earth are we burning peat when we have so many other carbon neutral fuels available? The relevant Government departments must open up the energy markets and allow full access to existing peat-fired stations. This, in turn, would allow farmers to utilise woodland by products and perhaps even grow timber solely for use as fuel. Why not?

What does it take to make a Government department wake up to the almost limitless opportunities we have to produce a large part of our own fuel needs and in an environmentally sound manner? Wood and willow are carbon neutral fuels. Farmers are ready to grow them and all we need is a little encouragement and an opening up of our fuel markets.

COFORD has recently published a book titled A review of small scale harvesting systems and use worldwide and their potential application in Irish forestry. The title is quite a mouthful but the book is well worth reading if you are interested in farm-scale harvesting and chipping. In conjunction with this it has also produced a CD assessing wood biomass and harvesting equipment. The booklet costs ?10 and the CD is ?5. Contact COFORD at Arena House, Sandyford, Dublin 18. Tel 2130725. Email info@coford.ie.

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