Farm Ireland

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Money grows on trees -- if you plant the right seeds

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

THE Irish Timber Growers Association recently held a field day on my farm in Meath to look at the various enterprises now in operation here and at the many ways in which woodland can provide additional income.

The day began with a short demonstration of processing ash thinnings for firewood and was followed by a good open discussion on the best means of producing, presenting and selling it.

A large crowd had turned up for the event, principally thanks to the work which the ITGA's Donal Whelan had put in to organise it, and Minister of State Shane McEntee gave a very encouraging talk on the future for forestry and the ways in which it can provide additional farm income.

There was a lot to talk about and see and along with the wood fuel operation, we also have a composting facility on the farm. This uses green material which was formerly consigned to landfill and, once composted, is in great demand for horticultural use.

Having looked at that, we moved to the woods and examined where I had heavily thinned 8ac of sycamore following some devastating damage caused by grey squirrels. I wanted advice on what to do next with this area and some suggested underplanting with Sitka spruce.

However, if the large numbers of ash and sycamore seedlings now present on the forest floor grow on, I will probably use them as a gift of nature to provide the next crop and save on the considerable cost of planting. After a lunch break we inspected some poorly performing ash and again I needed advice on managing them.

Michael Bulfin felt that the problem was down to provenance and it was generally agreed that, despite earlier thinning, further trees should now be removed as ash is such a light-demanding species.

Mr Whelan and I had deliberately chosen the worst of the trees for the stops during the tour as they represented the difficulties that many woodland owners encounter. There were far better stands of ash elsewhere but we felt it would be more beneficial to visit and discuss the woods that were not performing as well as expected.

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Leaving the ash, we examined a section of very poor oak which I had interplanted with alder to provide an alternative if the oak proved non-viable. After 12 years of growth, the presence of the alder had clearly benefited the oak, and there are also self-seeded ash growing strongly in places. Again it was thought that poor provenance was the likely cause of the oak performing so badly but there are now some decent individual trees among their smaller neighbours.

The advice here was to remove the alder for use as firewood and favour the better oak and ash. Some alder will be left if there are no worthwhile oak nearby which, following thinning, will create a mixed species wood with reasonable potential which I will also manage for continuous cover, allowing the many seedlings to grow on where light allows.

Moving on, we reached a hedgerow that was laid last winter. Laying has proved a great success and the hedge which was formerly full of gaps and of little use is now stockproof and should remain so for at least 30 years.

Robert Birtwhistle, of the Hedgelaying Association of Ireland, gave a talk on how to properly carry out this work and had a freshly laid section ready for demonstration.

Many of the group were astonished at how, in one year, a hedge could rejuvenate so strongly when correctly laid and protected. With so many topics covered and different properties visited, ITGA field days always provide a great forum for discussion on woodland management.

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Composting facility

Every commercial activity has its differing demands, and none more so than the production of good-quality compost, which was the second item on the agenda during the open day on my farm.

Tim Duggan, who manages the entire composting operation, took the group through the process from the initial acceptance of fresh green material to the production of nutrient-rich compost.

This business originally started when Tim and my son Peter began collecting grass and hedge clippings from housing estates for a small fee at weekends and during holidays while still at school. At that time, I was of course delighted to see such entrepreneurial activity but not so delighted when I realised that some of my land was being used to temporarily store the collected material.

We then agreed that it would be a viable proposition to put down a proper concrete slab and construct a wetland to absorb any run off of water that might occur.

With the demand during the Celtic Tiger years for compost and soil mixes for landscaping the hotels and golf courses that were appearing all over Ireland, the business grew rapidly and the site expanded further with a weigh bridge installed, buildings erected and further machinery purchased.

Material such as lawn and hedge clippings, brash, leaves and old shrubs, which formerly went to landfill, are now put through a shredder to reduce the particle size and increase the area on which the bugs can feed.

The shredded material is then stacked in rows where the activity of the naturally occurring micro-organism causes the temperature to rise to 60°C, which kills all seeds and possible pathogens.

This process takes 12 weeks, during which the rows are turned and the material is then put through a screening process to remove any stones or larger sticks.

The finished product is sold to landscapers, nurseries and gardeners, either as compost or blended with other materials such as top soil or horticultural grit to meet each customer's requirements.

An increasing demand from the public for a rich, fertile material to grow vegetables in raised beds and condition the soils in their gardens has largely replaced the earlier leisure outlets that marked the boom years in the economy.

The presence of so much woodland surrounding the firewood and composting site is a huge help in eliminating any potential impacts such as noise and dust. This site now covers four acres and provides 10 jobs in addition to the substantial spin-off for local businesses.

It all sounds easy but like any agricultural activity, close attention to detail and careful monitoring of each stage of the process are essential.

Both the composting and firewood operations had very modest beginnings and have expanded in line with the increasing demand for peat-free compost, home- produced wood fuel and, in general, good quality Irish products that are both environmentally viable and economically sustainable.

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