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'Farming is in crisis and energy projects are one way of keeping people on the land'

 

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With all the negativity surrounding farming presently, it is heart-warming to hear of a good news story.

Tillage farmer Michael Quirke is well known around his home near the quaint fishing village of Aghada in Co Cork.

Not just for his farming practices, but for his wind farm that sits among his crops on his 120 acres not far from Cloyne and supplies electricity to the local community, some seven kilometres from the bustling town of Midleton.

The first modern commercial wind farm in Ireland was developed in Bellacorrick, Co Mayo in 1992 by Bord na Mona, with turbines 53 metres high. Since then, the number of wind farms across the country has risen dramatically year on year and the size of the wind farms have also increased.

A project that took 11 years to complete, it has been a labour of love for Michael who has already made considerable investment to do his part for renewable energy by supplying wind-powered electricity to his own farm and dozens of houses in the area.

"I first looked into it in 1999 but it took another 11 years before we could actually start construction of the wind farm," he said.

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Tillage farmer Michael Quirke in a wheat field on his farm near Cloyne Co Cork where he combines tillage farming with an income from renewable energy projects;

Tillage farmer Michael Quirke in a wheat field on his farm near Cloyne Co Cork where he combines tillage farming with an income from renewable energy projects;

Tillage farmer Michael Quirke in a wheat field on his farm near Cloyne Co Cork where he combines tillage farming with an income from renewable energy projects;

"It was early on in the development of wind farms and there were a lot of delays. Then there was the bank collapse," he says of the slow process in the planning, financing and construction of the two E48 wind turbines that emit some 1.7MW of power.

On March 25 2011, with grid connection fully complete, the turbines finally rolled into action.

Finance for the entire project came by way of Triodos Bank in Holland and, although it has been a costly one, Michael is confident he is will be repaid all in good time.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "Farming is in crisis and it is one way of keeping people on the land and generating income.

"Over the years farmers were encouraged to diversify and I took up the challenge. Having said that, it has not been easy as we have met numerous obstacles along the way," he said.

With the wind farm up and running, Michael is now in the process of building a solar farm. "I wanted to look at ways to make better use of the line. We got planning permission for a 5MW solar unit in 2017 and we are very close to starting to build.

"When it does I will be the first farmer to have both wind and solar farms. It will work well as we have sun during the day and wind by night."

Michael says he has immense support from fellow farmers who are part of the Farmer-Led Solar Group which is supported by the IFA.

"There are only four farmers that are literally shovel-ready at the moment but we need protection against some of these auctions that would see us compete against much bigger outfits."

The new auction process, which is set to roll out in May 2020, will see solar developers throughout Ireland vie for power contracts.

Opportunity

"This is a crossroad moment. If farmers don't get involved in the next two years they will miss the opportunity. Now is the time to seek equity. They have the land and should not let anyone discourage them," he said.

Previously a sheep farmer, Michael sold off his flock in 2011 and switched to tillage only.

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These days he grows winter wheat for Goldcrop and malting barley and beans both for Dairygold. He lives on the farm with his wife Rose, and children David (16) and Lucy (14).

Income is also supplemented by two holiday cottages let through Airbnb.

"The crops are pretty good this year," he says of the impending harvest that will keep him busy for the next few weeks. Compared to 2018 the price of grain is going to be back though, as will straw, but we are just about ready to go."

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