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Miscanthus growers ploughing in energy crop

Millions of euro of State grants and farmers' investments are at risk of being lost as the country's fledgling miscanthus sector grinds to a halt.

Some 2,800ac of the biomass crop have been planted since grants of €546/ac were introduced six years ago. However, hundreds of farmers are now considering ploughing up the crop.

Further funding has been poured into miscanthus processing plants, such as the €400,000 briquetting plant at Cobh, Co Cork. However, the plant now lies idle after it was discovered that it is unsuited to processing the crop.

Suckler farmer Con Riordan, who is part of a Cork-based group of farmers called Leegen, said that the crop is now being ploughed in as farmers walk away from the sector and their investments. He estimates that his group has invested more than €1m of their own money in 450ac of miscanthus and the briquetting plant at Cobh.

"I'd gladly stick at it if I thought that there was a future in it because of how much of my own money is invested in it," he said. "But we're finished unless the Government installs some heating systems that use miscanthus in a couple of large facilities. This is the only way that we will safeguard the €3.5m that the State has already invested in the crop," he added.

Since one of the biggest promoters of the crop, Joe Hogan, announced that he was ceasing operations last month, the only remaining outlet for the crop is Edenderry power station.

However, growers outside the immediate catchment area of Edenderry claim that transport costs make the price being paid by the ESB completely unviable.

"We trucked 700t from 150ac to Edenderry this spring and were left with just €400 after we had paid for harvesting and transport," said Mr Riordan.

Galway farmer Michael O'Callaghan has no regrets about his decision to write off his €12,000 investment in 15ac of miscanthus when he ploughed it in last May. "I'm delighted I did it since I never made a penny out of it over the five years that I had it," he said. "The last crop I cut cost me €1,600 to harvest and I got paid €1,500 when it was delivered to Edenderry."

Mr O'Callaghan said he was only getting a yield of 2t/ac of dry matter compared to the 7-8t/ac that was originally predicted when he was planting the crop. He had to get derogation from the Department of Agriculture before he could plough in the crop in order to keep the €8,000 in grants that he received for establishing the crop.

"At least it is all back in grass now and the cattle are doing great on it," he said.

The 35 members of Leegen are meeting this evening in Little Island to decide whether they should continue to fund the venture. Some 320ac, or more than 70pc of the crop, was not harvested this spring and, in many cases, last year's bales are still standing on headlands .

"What is really disgraceful is that there are still grants being doled out for farmers to get into this," said Mr Riordan.

Irish Independent