Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Booming ventures show cash can be made from timber

Kerry business typifies success in sector

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

I spent a few days recently touring around Cork and Kerry and meeting farmers, foresters, sawmillers and contractors, all of whom were busy making a good living from trees. It was a wonderful trip and really exciting to see how the afforestation scheme of the early 1990s has created a new industry with sustainable jobs in planting, thinning, harvesting and final processing, both on the farm and in the sawmill.

My guide was Michael Sweeny, from Select Forest Ltd, who has been working with farmers and forestry investors in the Republic for years, and he showed me countless examples of how good management is rewarding woodland owners.

Both Michael and I agreed that reading newspapers and listening to the radio these days would make anyone think that nothing positive or successful ever happens in Ireland, but there are many good news stories out there.

Unfortunately, bad news sells papers and while we hear endless tales of people in financial difficulty, the reality is that the vast majority are working away quietly and, while conditions may be tough, they are still making their businesses pay.

One man we visited was Dan Foran, who farms about three miles from Listowel. Dan planted around 55ha in 1994 with around 40ha of spruce and 15ha of hardwoods.

Previously, he had been dairying and kept a suckler herd but was dissatisfied with the returns he was then getting.

Having a love of trees, he was attracted by the afforestation scheme and planted most of his farm.

This, of course, generated a certain amount of criticism, which in those days was common in Ireland, but now, with a few years of his premium payments still to come, he is thinning his woodland and earning a decent income.

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Dan has looked after his woods well, shaping the potential final crop trees, cutting out racks during thinning and putting in an excellent road system for harvesting and extraction. Seventeen years after planting, he feels he is getting a far greater return from his land than if he had continued with livestock. In addition to supplying sawmills, he is selling the thinnings from his ash plantations locally as wood fuel and has found that 1.5m lengths of seasoned spruce are in great demand from householders to store and then cut up at home.

He produces hardwood logs in his yard using a tractor-driven Palax processor and, for ease of extraction from the woods, has bought a Yanmar-tracked dumper, which he intends fitting a crane to for loading.

Like all successful people, Dan has paid close attention to management -- and from the beginning he set about learning as much as possible about his new enterprise.

He has now established a business which will provide an income for the future after the premium payments cease.

He expressed the highest regard for Ciaran Nugent, his Forest Service inspector, and the help that both he and Mr Sweeny have given him in maximising the returns from his woods.

We all agreed that many farmers do not realise the hugely valuable asset they have in their trees and the potential income they can generate when cared for and marketed sensibly.

Professional advice is needed from day one when thinning and selling to sawmills, and binding contracts are essential.

It has always amazed me how most farmers will follow their cattle from farm to factory and insist on same-day payment, but when it comes to thousands of euro worth of timber, will often leave the supervision to others without an agreement between farmer and contractor in place.

While we were at Dan's farm, a lorry was loading spruce for delivery to Grainger's Sawmill, and later in the day we visited its plant at Enniskeane, Co Cork.

I could only marvel at the technological advances that have been made in processing timber and how the raw material arrives at the mill, and with the aid of some millions worth of technologically advanced equipment, is then graded, processed, sawn, dried and turned into valuable final products, most of which are exported.

Grainger's now employs more than 80 people and when one adds on the number employed in planting, thinning and harvesting and the journey from farm forest to mill, one appreciates the success of the forestry schemes and their importance to rural Ireland.

Now, there is a good news story.

Indo Farming