Farm Ireland

Tuesday 12 December 2017

brothers believe in benefits of willow

Farrellys say crop proves money does grow on trees

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Despite the bottlenecks within the bio-energy sector, one Meath-based company is ploughing on regardless.

"We have to get more biomass crops in the ground if we're to meet the EU's renewable energy targets," said Pat Farrelly of Farrelly Brothers agricultural contracting firm.

Despite going through the ringer over the last three years, Mr Farrelly is determined to expand his fledgling bio-energy business. "We're still not out of the woods yet to be honest," he admitted. "We've been stung for approximately €1.5m of bad debts over the past number of years which has taken a big toll on the business here and forced us to totally restructure."

Part of this restructuring involved sending 36 machines of the brothers' extensive fleet to civil engineering projects in far flung places such as Poland and the Shetland Isles.

Plans to build a combined heat and power plant (CHP) at their yard near Carnaross in north Meath have also taken a hit after being refused planning permission. "But we've put it back in for planning permission in the last few weeks. We still believe we can make it happen."

Mr Farrelly is now concentrating all his energies into developing a biomass built around willow.

"We've got amazing varieties of willow from Sweden now that can grow up to 25ft in just two years. It is amazingly efficient using only one part energy for every 30 parts energy produced," said Mr Farrelly.

He reckons that farmers will have their initial investment in the crop paid off after just five years. Farrellys say they will buy willow at €30-35/t and that an average crop yields 20t every two years. In addition, Mr Farrelly said that farmers can claim entitlements on land planted with the crop and charge gate fees of up to €8/t for up to 10t of sludge per acre per year.

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Farrellys charge €180/ac for harvesting the crop. "This works out at an average annual income of about €250/ac and the crop should continue producing for over 30 years. It does cost €1,000/ac to establish the crop and up until last spring farmers were able to get an establishment grant of over €500/ac. However, this has been cancelled indefinitely as the Government reins in spending. There was €178m allocated to forestry last year but only €2m to biomass crops," said Mr Farrelly.

"If the Government are to have any hope of complying with EU directives on renewables, they'll need to increase their allocation to biomass to €10m. They really need to show some leadership on this issue."

But should Ireland just focus on the proven model of wind for its renewable energy needs?

"Wind doesn't blow all the time. We can keep a power plant going 24-7, 365 days of the year with biomass," replies Mr Farrelly.

Farrellys are making more progress at a local level with a strong partnership established with Meath County Council.

"Meath are the only council that I know who have taken the decision to plant some of the hundreds of acres of land that they control with willow.

"We planted 34ac near Kells last spring."

Despite Mr Farrelly's claim that willow's returns means that "money does grow on trees", the brothers only planted 200ac last year to bring the total amount that they have planted so far to nearly 3,000ac.

"The Department inspections to approve grants came too late in many cases," said Pat, who remains optimistic about the future of the crop.

"Burning willow to generate heat is only the last in a list of products covering everything from aspirin to beer that I think we can extract from this crop," he said.

"For me, it's a no-brainer. It reduces the labour and input requirement at farm level.

"It has an advantage over all other farm enterprises in that it has a guaranteed price and a guaranteed market.

"It is easy to grow and Irish growers actually have a competitive advantage compared to other parts of Europe because the crop grows so well here.

"It will also provide the local economy with a reliable and guaranteed Irish supply of renewable fuel."

Indo Farming