Trials from a Westmeath company suggest willow compost could help fill the void when peat reserves run out – and provide an income for willow farmers left high and dry when the biofuel market collapsed. But it is not a silver bullet, the horticulture sector has been warned
A Westmeath company may be on the verge of simultaneously solving two of the biggest riddles facing Irish farming: what is the horticultural sector going to do when the reserves of peat run out, and can the farmers who decided to grow willow get a sustainable return on their product?
Rathowen company Klasmann-Deilmann are composting their first trial batch of willow canes, in the hope that they may provide a home-grown substitute for peat.
The future of Klasmann-Deilmann’s Irish operation was thrown into doubt in 2019, when a landmark High Court case taken by Friends of the Irish Environment meant that the extraction of peat on plots larger than 50ha (123ac)would require planning permission, and all existing bogs would require retrospective planning permission.
This has proved a lengthy and, to date, impossible task for peat processors.
Companies must first apply to an Bord Pleanála for leave to seek substitute consent. They then must apply and be granted substitute consent itself, before applying for planning permission from the local authority and finally applying for a licence to extract peat from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Klasmann-Deilmann began this process in early 2020 and were granted leave to apply for substitute consent in July of 2022. This decision has been challenged in the High Court and a final ruling on the first step of the process is not expected until late 2023.
According to Kevin Mahon, managing director of the Irish branch of Klasmann-Deilmann, these regulations mean the effective end of commercial peat extraction.
“Realistically, the harvesting of peat in Ireland is finished,” he says. “This isn’t something that the European Union have done, this is a result of how we have designed the regulations here.
“This brought harvesting to an end overnight.
“As a rule we always had three years’ worth of stock in reserve. When the 2019 decision was in the offing, we bought huge stocks of peat from Bord Na Móna and in 2021 we imported 400t of peat from our sister company in Latvia.
“We haven’t run out of peat yet but the clock is ticking.”
Klasmann-Deilmann have been working to develop alternatives to peat for over a decade. In 2013, a wood fibre composter was installed on their premises and they have also experimented with bark and coir — a material which comes from coconuts and has to be imported from India.
Earlier this year they took a test consignment of around 200t of coppiced willow from a nearby farmer, Ambrose Maguire, which would otherwise have been used to create electricity at the Edenderry Powerstation.
“It’ll take us about six months or more to compost it fully,” says Mr Mahon. “When the willow goes through the harvester, it is fairly well shredded, so we don’t have to do much more cutting, which is a help.
“We started by putting it in a windrow and turned it in the first month or six weeks, and then turned it every couple of weeks after that, depending on the temperature.
“We have temperature probes in it. We need to get it up to about 70˚C, and after that it’s just a case of turning it every few weeks for about six months.
“Part of the reason for turning it so much is to keep the temperatures down and to let oxygen in, and that gives you an evenly composted mixture.”
The willow is expected to lose up to half its original volume while being composted.
Klasmann-Deilmann are confident that willow will play some role in offsetting the need for peat, but further investigation is still needed.
“We haven’t done the full analysis yet, we still have a few months of composting to go before we know exactly how the willow will work,” says Mr Mahon.
“After that we will have to do all the usual tests for herbicides and heavy metals. We know this product is clean but we will do a full chemical analysis anyway.
“This will also give us a much better idea of the pH of the compost and the levels of nutrition in it. Once we have done that we will know how best to blend it (with other composted materials) and how much dilution we will need.
“It does look like willow will be better than a lot of alternatives for holding water, it will certainly be better than wood fibre.”
Early results from Klasmann-Deilmann indicate that willow compost will not be fine enough to use for all products, and woodier willow may even need to be composted twice before use.
“The one down side that we see already is that there is still a lot of white wood in it, which doesn’t look like it’s going to compost very well,” says Mr Mahon.
“About half the willow compost is too coarse. Tree or shrub nurseries are probably OK with a coarser material but bedding plants, which are in much smaller containers, will need a finer material. The bedding plant market is a much bigger sector for us.
“From what we have seen from the willow so far, about half of it will be fine enough but the coarser lots of wood are going to have to be fed back into the system and composted again. It is going to take a lot longer for that material to break down.
“The more composting it requires, the more volume you lose and the more work you have to put into it. That will all eat into the financial viability of the willow, and that’s what we are not sure of yet.”
While willow compost may not be a silver bullet to replace peat, it looks likely that it will have a big role to play in the years ahead.
“It is a very expensive alternative to peat,” says Mr Mahon. “It is about the same price as bringing peat from Latvia but it is cheaper than bringing the coir from India. You can use 100pc coir for many crops, but we will have to mix willow with other materials.
“We’re testing it and we are certain that you won’t be able to grow anything in 100pc willow. It is just too nutrient-rich. You need something to dilute it with.
“At this stage we would be satisfied that we could use willow at a rate of at least 10pc, alongside other materials such as wood fibre, coir and peat. It is quite possible that we could use it up to a 30pc dilution, but we won’t know that for sure until all the tests are completed.
“This is one of the real challenges that the industry is facing — the sheer volume of material that is required to replace peat. There just isn’t enough volume of material worldwide to replace it.
“We have alternatives but they are nowhere near meeting the volume. The price (of peat free compost) is one thing, but the volume is the problem that I just don’t see a solution for.
“We do peat-free mixes. There is not a week that goes by that we don’t do a couple of loads of peat-free mixes.
“But if everyone wanted to go peat-free in the morning, there is no way that the industry could do it. Regardless of the cost, we just wouldn’t be able to meet demand.”
Rathowen farmer Ambrose Maguire planted 20ac of willow on his farm in 2010 and 2011. He had intended to supply the nearby Lanesborough Power Station, which was then in the process of converting from burning peat to willow and other biomass.
Since the closure of this power station in 2020, his only option is to pay to have the willow transported to the Edenderry Powerstation in Offaly, adding 100km to the round-trip.
This year, he harvested nearly 200t of willow and supplied it to nearby Klasmann-Deilmann.
Despite saving money on transport costs, Mr Maguire feels the price paid for willow as a composting material will have to rise significantly if it is to be a long-term viable option for him.
“The process itself was simple. All we had to do is harvest it and get it over to them. There was no special requirements needed for it,” he says.
“Our travel costs are greatly reduced. But for what we received (from Klasmann-Deilmann), nearly half of that money went on harvesting alone. So there is little or no margin in it to begin with.
“I think the price would have to come up a good bit and I don’t know is that realistic. Ideally your harvest costs should only be about a quarter of your total return.
“If half of the money is going on harvesting and transporting, you’d be better off with tillage, where the harvesting is only a fraction of the overall price and you have both your grain and your straw to sell.
“To really make it viable long-term that price would have to go up. It’s hard to see that happening.
“The people at the peat factory (Klasmann-Deilmann) have to pay staff and they have to make a living out of it as well, that is the reality of it.”
The majority of farmers who planted willow 10 or 15 years ago are in the process of leaving the market. Many feel that promises made to them about the viability of the crop never materialised.
With Minister of State Pippa Hackett aiming to phase out peat usage before 2035, there is an expectation that the cost of compost will have to go up. Many farmers believe that this price rise will not make its way down to the people growing willow.
“It never seems to filter down to the farmers,” says Mr Maguire. “The price of meat has gone up and the price of eggs has gone up a lot recently, but the money that the farmer is getting is the same as it was two years ago.
“You can only harvest willow every two or three years. If you break it down to per year, per acre, you’d be better off on the dole. The figures just don’t add up properly at the moment.
“The government haven’t done anything for us and I can’t see them doing anything for us. I guess I’m a bit disgruntled. It’s been 12 years (since first planting the willow) and I am still disappointed that what was promised never happened.”