Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

'I am getting the same prices as I was 25 years ago' - Tillage farmer on switch to solar

My week... Robert Wilson Wright

Robert Wilson Wright has planning permission for a solar electricity facility on the family farm in Kildare. Photo: Dessie Boland
Robert Wilson Wright has planning permission for a solar electricity facility on the family farm in Kildare. Photo: Dessie Boland

Ken Whelan

A planned 50-acre solar electricity facility at his Coolcarrigan tillage enterprise in Co Kildare is Robert Wilson Wright's main pre- occupation these days. It could remain a personal preoccupation unless the Government gets around to deciding what subsidies should apply to alternative solar energy projects.

The innovative farmer has full planning permission for the project from Kildare County Council, but has more bureaucratic obstacles to overcome.

"The Government is supposed to make its decision on subsidies by the end of the first quarter of this year which is just in a few days now," Robert says with the air of a man who knows that deadline is unlikely to be met.

And once the Government eventually makes the decision on the renewable energy source, more bureaucratic hurdles await - not least how and when ESB will export his electricity to the national grid.

The Wilson Wright solar farm, when operational, would produce 10 megawatts of electricity which will be exported to the national grid.

"We will not need this electricity for the farm so it will all go to the grid to help the Government to meet its commitment to produce 20pc of the nation's energy from alternative and renewable sources, he explains.

But for the moment "seeing will be believing" for this Kildare farmer who is a little unclear about how the Government intends to achieve this mandatory renewable energy target.

The Wrights have been tillage farmers on the Prosperous side of the Bog of Allen since the 1830s. Robert is helped on the farm by his son Michael (36) and wife Anna. The couple's daughter, Sophie (34), is married to a farmer in England.

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Like everyone else in the tillage sector, Robert is underwhelmed by the prices his 230ac of wheat beans and rape are achieving on the open market these days.

"We have seen better days in my 45 years' farming. Today, I am getting the same prices that I was getting 25 years ago," he explains.

But he intends to resolutely plough on, or in Robert's case "drill on" as he is a leading member of the environmentally conscious BASE group of tillage farmers.

In keeping with the direct drill tillage system, the only really big piece of farm equipment at Coolcarrigan is his combine harvester.

The farm has expanded incrementally over the years and now includes some 600 acres of adjoining forestry.

Robert has his own wood-chipping plant on the farm to recycle his rendered wood as it becomes available to generate heat and additional farm income.

His off-farm pastimes are also green-friendly with botany taking up most of his spare time.

And that's Botany with a capital B as Robert takes his holidays in countries of botanical interest and thinks nothing of leaving the plains of Kildare for the Himalayas or India or Burma in search of rare flora and fauna.

His annual botanical trips usually take the best part of a month and are solo ventures. His wife Anna would find them uncomfortable, Robert says, with some degree of understatement considering he has to camp with his fellow botanical travellers, usually in high-altitude places.

Unfortunately, due to import restrictions, he cannot bring any of the plants and flowers he sees in these exotic locations home to Kildare. It's a pity because the Wrights have opened their period home and its splendid gardens for occasional public viewing. "We cater for pre-arranged bus trips only," he hastens to add.

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