Strength in numbers for smaller holdings
The average farm forest holding in Ireland is about 8ha or 20ac. This is small in forestry terms and consequently it can be difficult to achieve the economies of scale necessary to maximise returns.
However, the same problem exists across Europe where many countries have a similar average to Ireland. There is a big difference though. In Europe, most private forest owners have been in the business for generations, whereas the majority of owners in this country have yet to harvest, let alone sell, any of their timber.
The European private forest landscape is also characterised by networks of well developed, professionally managed producer and cluster groups, some with many thousands of members. By pooling resources and expertise, and by combining to offer several owners' wood lots for sale at a time, the net effect can be that the individual small owner can be in as powerful a position as much larger producers when negotiating prices.
Thankfully, producer groups are starting to become established in Ireland. While progress was slow to begin with due to the large number of forest owners feeling their way in a new venture, some groups are now well on their way to assisting their members with thinning, extraction and marketing their timber. These groups also provide the ideal forum for advice and exchange of views and experience.
A recent Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) field trip to a family-owned forest and cluster group member near Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, provided a great lesson in how to make farm forestry profitable.
This forest is a typical size of 8ha, but with a yield class of 26+ it is well above the national average in terms of productivity. This high yield potential is despite the fact that it is situated high on the Castlecomer plateau, on productive but intrinsically unstable soil. As a result, management of the plantation is geared not only towards maximising the returns but minimising the risk of windblow.
The forest is managed on behalf of the owner by ForWood, a joint venture between a forest management and a harvesting company, the management headed up by Paddy Bruton while Jim Hurley manages the harvesting.
Paddy Bruton describes ForWood as a cluster group of clients brought together for management and harvesting purposes. ForWood operates purely on the basis of charging a commission on the revenue generated from timber sales. Mr Bruton claims that this protects the interests of both the owners and ForWood. He added that, such is the demand for timber, they could sell multiples of the pulp-, pallet- and stake-wood they are currently selling.