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Independent.ie

Wednesday 15 August 2018

'The forestry will be our pension pot' - Why this suckler farmer says planting trees will help ensure his survival

Planting trees will help ensure the survival of his suckler farm enterprise, RDS Teagasc forestry award winner Andrew O'Carroll tells our reporter

Andrew O'Carroll feeding the cattle on the family farm in Rathcash, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Finbarr O’Rourke
Andrew O'Carroll feeding the cattle on the family farm in Rathcash, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Finbarr O’Rourke
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

For suckler farmer Andrew O'Carroll planting forestry was a route to ensuring his farm's survival.

Based in Rathcash, Co Kilkenny with his wife Statia and two daughters Siobhan (23) and Stacey (19), Andrew has been farming since he attended Kildalton College in the mid-1980s.

After graduation, he farmed land at home with his brother before taking over a farm in the nearby Paulstown from a relation who had opted for the early retirement scheme in 1996.

This farm consisted of heavy, upland ground that made tending his 50-strong Limousin, Simmental and Belgian Blue suckler herd a challenging task.

In 2005, Andrew took on a long-term lease of "good, dry land" nearby.

It wasn't until showing his relation the leased land that the idea of planting forestry on the heavy, upland land struck, yet the idea didn't come from the younger of the two.

Andrew inspecting the trees in the 47 acres of heavier ground he has planted in forestry. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Andrew inspecting the trees in the 47 acres of heavier ground he has planted in forestry. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke

"I brought my relation, to see the ground I'd leased and he then said that I should plant some of the heavy land back at the farm.

"This was coming from a man who was in his 80s at the time, so it was most unusual for him to have this new idea and to see how proactive he was, so that's when I went about it."

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While Andrew says in the past he "wouldn't have dreamed of planting forestry", when Coillte came out and assessed the land and noted its suitability for planting, he realised it really was a no-brainer.

"I contacted Mick Power in Coillte. I would've known him personally. He came out and assessed the plantation and we decided to plant some of it, and then my relation said I should plant even more of the heavier ground.

"I ended up planting 47 acres. Before I wouldn't have dreamed of planting because I'd been gifted the farm but when we sat back and looked at it, we knew that it was hard land to farm and really suitable to forestry," he says.

Andrew's plantation is made up of three blocks and consists of 80pc Sitka spruce and 20pc diverse, which includes Japanese larch with some alder and ash screenings on the edge of it for visual purposes.

Andrew O'Carroll from Paulstown Co Kilkenny. Picture: Finbarr O'Rourke
Andrew O'Carroll from Paulstown Co Kilkenny. Picture: Finbarr O'Rourke

Since Andrew had no experience of managing forestry prior to taking on the 47 acres, he said he was grateful of the support of Coillte and their forestry manager Mick Power, who oversaw the entire process.

"I got Coillte in. They planted it and looked after the management of it for four years and after four years it was assessed and made sure everything was in order by the Department, and then they paid the balance of the planting grant to Coillte once they had it planted.

"After four years everything is up and running and looks after itself. There's no competition really and if there were a few that needed to be replaced and weren't thick enough, that was done at that stage. We've had no issues since," he explains.

Andrew has to lease 100 acres to be able to farm his suckler herd, but says the guaranteed pension pot that the forestry provides along with improved farming conditions of the leased land makes it all worthwhile.

"When I planted I leased a similar amount of ground to what I planted to replace that, so I've better productive land for my farming enterprise and I also have what we consider to be our pension, provided we are in good health and survive.

"We'll have a pension pot there and we've two daughters and the plan would be that it would be replanted and would be a pension for the next generation as well," adds Andrew.

While Andrew knows that not everybody has the option to take on forestry as additional farming enterprise, he said that it has certainly made day-to-day farming easier for him and recalls the hardship he used to endure farming on the heavier ground.

"I remember one year I was in the REPS scheme and I had to spread lime on the fields in April and the tractors and machines travelled on it no bother but in the month of June if the weather came wrong, the cattle would be sinking," he says.

"That's not good for everybody especially in the current weather conditions.

"Everybody sees the effect that bad conditions have on people's psyches. It's not good. You have to weigh up the options, but then again I had the option to lease good land in its place - not everybody has that option," he says.

Andrew would encourage anybody who thinks they have an area of land on their farm that would be suitable to forestry and would like to add to their asset to consider planting.

"Everybody has to assess their own situation but for a proportion of anybody's farm if they think it's suitable, if they think it's an option they should do it.

"They should think of it as it a pension fund that you see growing. If you're lucky enough to have a forest area you can see your pension fund growing in value, it's an option some people should look at," he says.

Andrew was recently awarded the inaugural RDS Teagasc Farm Forestry award at a ceremony in Dublin due to his well-managed forest which has had exceptional growth and is expected to be ready for thinning in 2022.

Thinnings

While most thinnings occur at the 20-year mark, Andrew's anticipated early thinning highlights the high standard of management in his forest.

"Thinning is planned for 2022; now it might be done sooner but that's what seems manageable. It's pretty advanced and the judges were impressed with how strong the plantation was for the age of it.

"I'm very proud as a Kilkenny man to win a first All-Ireland for the county in this competition. I appreciate all the encouragement I got from Mick Power in Coillte. He was proactive and helpful all the way along. Teagasc advisors Michael Somers and Frances McHugh were also a huge help in establishing the forestry enterprise."

Andrew's wife Statia adds: "I'm delighted that he was acknowledged for his initiative to grow forestry and the way he's farmed and of making the best out of it and thinking outside the box. He makes good decisions so I went with him on it from the start."

Runner-up in the RDS Teagasc award was suckler farmer and forester Thomas Duffy from Carrigallen, Co Leitrim. He planted 28 acres in 2007 and a further 18 acres were also planted consisting of Sitka spruce, alder and ash.


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