A Northern Ireland farmer's bid to replace oil with sustainable home grown fuel and make a profit was an inspirational highlight of the Future Farmers of Wales 2005 study tour. The group travelled to Londonderry to see how willow has replaced cereals and carrots on Grade One and other land farmed by the former president of the Ulster Farmers Union.
They learned that John Gilliland had now achieved his target to competitively displace heat from oil with heat from willow and gain a return that is twice the average Single Farm Payment. But there had been difficulties and setbacks and it was only the introduction of sludge cake into the equation that had finally turned the required profit.
Farm manager Andrew Carver described how the venture began back in the late eighties when the boiler in the elder Mr Gilliland's mansion overlooking the River Foyle failed. It was decided to replace it with an industrial straw burning boiler that would also dry the grain.
The antique furniture cracked, but the family enjoyed unprecedented warmth and the figures stacked up. It was the start of an exciting development that has led to the establishment of Rural Generation Limited which now fuels community boilers, as well as providing a range of renewable energy services.
“Willow is an amazing crop”, added Mr Carver. “You just stick a rod in the ground on St Patrick's Day which is 17 March and by July you have six foot of growth! You store them at -3C to stop them sprouting before planting them. But it's not trouble free.
“One must be pro-active with weed control because willow is such an open crop and doesn't offer much competition. Also slugs and leatherjackets often need to be treated for. And it can be difficult to harvest on heavy land in the winter. You have to wait until the leaves have dropped off and the moisture levels are low”.
Mr Carver went on to describe planting at one hectare an hour, using 15,000 plants from a wide variety of clones to help stave off disease. Planting costs were about £2,000 a hectare, but the willow could remain in the ground for as long as it was needed. The crop needed water and was topped in the first year to encourage tillering out.
Harvesting was straightforward, using a forager, and took place every two or three years. Wet conditions were a consideration but not a problem. It could be dried in a conventional grain drying area, but it needed to be stacked higher because it was less dense. There had to be a build up of sufficient back pressure for good air distribution.
Willow didn't respond to fertiliser, but there was a need to replace the goodness it took out of the ground when removed at harvest. And that was another reason why the sludge was important.
Rural Generation Limited now utilises 7,500 tonnes of municipal sewage sludge cake which it is paid to take from all of the City of Derry. And it's the introduction of sludge that has boosted profits from well below the target of £400 a hectare, including £200 SFP, to between £679 and £881 depending on the sale price of woodchip.
Mr Carver added that the project was on course to achieve wealth generation for farmers, sustainable waste management, renewable energy generation and reinstate respect for farmers by the wider general public. Mr Gilliland who was awarded the OBE for Services to the Environment in 2003 is also the Northern Ireland member of the UK's Sustainable Development Commission.
Future Farmers of Wales chairman Will Prichard of Pembrokshire summed up the mood of the visiting party. “It was inspirational to see a farmer commercialising alternative crops, especially with the advent of the Single Farm Payment. As we're having to become more market orientated it's given us a lot to think about”.
The tour also took in a visit to the only remaining agricultural college in Ulster, at Greenmount near Belfast, where there is a distinct practical element to the courses which range from National Diploma to Degree. Students take part in management decisions as well as taking their turn at milking and other routine work.
There was also a tour of Dungannon Meats which has a plant at Llanybydder in Dyfed. Evening speakers included Cormac McVerley, senior agricultural manager at the Royal Ulster Bank, who outlined the effect that the peace process had had on Northern Ireland agriculture.
“Northern Ireland has returned to some sort of normality”, he said. “The economy is good and unemployment is virtually non existent. People will pay very good money for land. They like the luxury of living in the countryside and will pay £10,000 an acre”.
He added that farmers would sacrifice a lot to acquire more land. The Single Farm Payment was a 'wake up call' to the very basics of farming. But with the age of farmers averaging 57, it represented an early retirement package for many.
Balance Crucial to Forestry Strategy
Turning Crops Into Petrol And Manure Into Electricity