How farmers can capitalise on fast-growing willow and eucalyptus
The recent Energy in Agriculture event at Gurteen College, Co Tipperary, highlighted energy crop options for farmers and in this article, I will focus on how farmers can benefit from growing energy wood on the farm.
The first question we need to look at is where does the wood fuel supply come from?
There are approximately 770,000 hectares of forest in Ireland.
About 51pc is in State ownership and is managed by Coillte. The other 49pc is owned by about 20,000 private forest owners. More than four out of every five private forest owners are farmers.
The share of private forests continues to increase since the late 80s mainly due to attractive afforestation grants.
Half of all farm forests are less than 25 years of age. That means that such forests still have a lot of growing to do!
You can guess where I am going with this.
The latest timber production forecast from COFORD (see graph) shows that production is set to double from four million cubic metres currently to about eight million cubic metres by 2035. That is 17 years from now.
Nearly all this increase will come from private (mainly farm) forests.
On-farm wood fuel sources
When I say 'forestry', people think straightaway of a Sitka spruce plantation but forestry has many different faces.
Besides the ubiquitous conifer plantations, farmers are now increasingly growing broadleaves such as sycamore or alder.
'Scrub' on the farm may well turn out to be a valuable native woodland that, with appropriate close-to-nature management, can generate a sustainable source of wood fuel.
Old and neglected hazel coppice can also be revitalised and brought back into production, thereby providing another income stream. A modern take on the traditional hazel coppice is fast-growing willow short-rotation coppice producing very large amounts of wood chip. Eucalyptus is very fast growing, producing large amounts of biomass in a short period of time.
Do keep in mind that both willow and eucalyptus, although fast growing, only produce pulpwood so you tend to be a price taker rather than price maker.
Agroforestry combines the growing of trees with grazing or crops in the same field. This can be another excellent source of wood fuel on the farm.
And finally - last but not least - good, old-fashioned, well-managed hedgerows. This traditional Irish take on agroforestry can produce large amounts of wood fuel sustainably. I can't understand why some farmers regard hedgerows more as a nuisance rather than an asset.
Hedges provide many benefits on the farm: they are a cost-effective alternative to wire fences while providing additional benefits such as valuable shelter to livestock and crops.
I may have mentioned once or twice before that there are attractive financial supports available to get you started while on-going support is available too.
The grant to establish a conifer or broadleaf forest on the farm tends to cover the cost of establishment and early management. In addition, you're also entitled to an annual payment ranging from €510/ha/yr to €660/ha/yr, payable for 15 years. The rate depends on the type of land, the type of trees and the acreage planted.
Rather than focusing on the production of a commercial conifer (or broadleaf) timber crop, you can also choose to establish a new native woodland. Not only will an ecologically rich, biodiverse woodland be created, but it also presents opportunities for planting in various environmentally sensitive areas such as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Establishing a native woodland will provide you with higher annual payments of €665-€680/ha/yr for 15 years.
If you decide to go for agroforestry, then the annual payment will range from €645/ha/yr to €660/ha/yr for a period of five years.
Support is also available for the growing of trees such as eucalyptus and poplar to produce woody biomass over a short period of time (e.g. 10 to 15 years). The annual payment comes to €510-€520/ha/yr for a 15-year period.
Valuable on-going management support is available too.
Thinning is an essential operation to produce quality broadleaf timber. A grant of €750/ha is available under the Woodland Improvement Scheme to carry out a thinning operation for the first time. A subsequent grant of €500/ha is also available to carry out a second thinning operation.
If you need to get wood out of your forest, then you will need to construct a road or at least a bellmouth with loading area. An attractive grant of €40 per linear metre is available to a maximum density of 25 metres per hectare.
The Native Woodland Conservation Scheme provides a grant of up to €5,000/ha to carry out improvement works, while a small annual payment of €350/ha/yr is available for a period of seven years.
On farm supply opportunities
NOW that you have produced all this wood, what are your options? Fuel wood can be processed into firewood, wood chip, wood pellets or charcoal.
The easiest option is to sell a lorry load of unprocessed fuel wood. Current prices hover around the €1,500 mark for a 25-tonne load.
But you could also add value by processing it into wood fuel. Several farmers around the country have invested in a firewood processor or wood chipper. Instead of selling fuel wood, they are now selling wood fuel.
Another attractive alternative is not to sell but to use the wood to heat your home. By processing your own wood and installing a wood boiler at home, you can reduce your heating bills greatly.
It is clear from the above that future wood fuel supplies will come mainly from farms. Farms provide a wide range of on-farm wood fuel sources ranging from a Sitka spruce plantation to hedgerows.
With attractive financial establishment and management supports available, wood energy provides excellent on-farm supply and enterprise opportunities.
Steven Meyen is a Teagasc forestry advisor; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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