Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

A turn to timber could boost income

Contractors at work
Contractors at work
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Investing in farm forestry requires a huge commitment and a major change of land use. Before planting, it is vital to learn from others and to look closely at what is happening in the marketplace.

Such is the present demand for timber that virtually all available harvesting contractors are working flat out and have a waiting list of anxious clients.

While most of the wider economy is in crisis, thousands of farmers with mature and semi-mature woodland are justifiably pleased at having made the decision to plant at a time when forestry was not the widespread farm enterprise it is today.

Right now timber prices are reaching record levels and these buoyant market conditions are occurring in the teeth of our worst recession for at least half a century and are further proof of the ever present need for timber and wood-based products.

The wood fuel market is also providing a solid outlet for non-commercial material and after many years of learning by trial and error, a good sensible blueprint for profitable farm forestry is now available.

Up to the mid-1990s we had to find out pretty much everything for ourselves. At that time there were too many inexperienced operators both advising and working as forestry contractors. There was no real back-up to protect farmers, especially the elderly people who often had difficulty seeking second opinions and advice.

Nowadays, however, there is a wealth of excellent and proven information available on all aspects of forestry. Teagasc has done a great job in recent years by producing informative open days and demonstrations, good booklets, and above all, a really first-class website that gives the answers, in simple terms, to all the questions farmers and landowners have when embarking on a forestry project.

Visit and follow the links, which provide comprehensive information and also direct you to real people who can call to your farm and advise on what is best to plant and where. This site deals with all the frequently asked queries such as how a forest enterprise can improve farm and household income and explains the various timber and non-timber benefits. How to apply for the higher 'farmer' rate of premium, the effect planting will have on other farm schemes and, most importantly, how to get the job done right first time.

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Given that the generous grants are still available, more and more farmers are now applying for permission to plant while the current aids remain in place. There was a time when securing Forest Service approval to establish woodland was something of a formality. That day is long gone and, with Government finances tighter than ever, the grants we now enjoy may not be there forever. Anyone contemplating planting should take action immediately.

Proper planning is essential in order to maximise income and ensure that a forest enterprise fits in with existing enterprises and schemes. Teagasc will give this advice for free but do make the effort to learn about forestry and how it can provide a good return for the present and future generations.

Attend the field days and talk to the advisers. When you do decide to plant, also employ a good independent consultant who is a member of the Society of Irish Foresters to look after your interests and get independent legal advice. It's best to be sure than sorry.

We may well look back on the past decade as the golden age of Irish farm forestry when there were grants and aids for virtually every forest activity. The next decade or two may well be a period of stringent cost cutting, so it would seem prudent to act now rather than live to regret the opportunity.

The Forestry Village at the Ploughing Championships is a great place to chat to foresters and farmers and see how others have used forestry to add to overall farm income. It can be hard sometimes to decide whether to do the work oneself or employ a contractor or even to enter a partnership or not. We all need help in making these decisions and it is always wise to take on board all the opinions and then make your own mind up. Talk to farmers who have planted themselves and learn from their experiences.

In the past, I have advised that selling outlying pockets of land would be a wise move, given the crazy prices farm land was fetching. This is no longer the case and for such properties, especially if the land is marginal for grazing or tillage, forestry still provides a great option.

If a farmer decides to start up a dairy, suckler or tillage enterprise, he or she will normally learn everything there is to know about it before committing valuable land and capital.

He/she will know that these are highly skilled careers and only the best survive and prosper. Forestry is unique as, while it requires a high level of knowledge and expertise, it is not nearly as time demanding as other mainstream farming activities and therefore can free up scarce time and resources, which can be profitably used to improve on existing enterprises while providing a substantial additional annual income.

Irish Independent