Land diversification: ‘What works well for us may not work for someone else’

Land use, agriculture and forestry together will contribute approximately 40% of the reductions in emissions being planned between now and 2030, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment Richard Bruton, said earlier this week.

But farm and land diversification has become a contentious issue in recent times with communities in some counties up in arms over afforestation and the generation of wind energy in their areas.

In Leitrim where water pollution – because of the over-planting of Sitka spurce trees in numerous parts of the county – is becoming more and more of a problem, one local farmer there is adamant that diversification can work effectively, despite these issues.

He does warn though that workability can only be determined when the needs of the farmer and a thorough understanding of soil conditions are to the fore.

Kenny McCauley and his father Brian are suckler farmers who also run a wood-chipping business on the outskirts of Mohill.

Brian is a landscaper by trade and earned himself an esteemed reputation in the sector over the years.

‘Diversifying the business’

In the mid-2000s, the McCauleys began looking at the whole area of diversification and at how the business and farm could operate efficiently under such circumstances.

Forestry became a viable option for them and Kenny and Brian are now planting marginal land on the farm.

And, as Kenny alluded to this week, “it is working well for us”.

He also warned, though, that what is currently working for his family’s farm and business may not necessarily work in the same way for other farmers and business people in the region.

The Leitrim man says diversification is about looking at the resources each individual has and subsequently finding what works with the conditions and set-up that’s there.

“For us we wanted to make better use of the resources that we had in terms of sheds, the farm, labour and machinery,” continued Kenny.

“We invested in a firewood processing machine – the idea was that instead of sending lads home halfway through a wet day in the landscaping side of things we would process and bag firewood for the rest of the time that was available.

“This then lead us to look more closely at some marginal land that we have on the farm; we examined the options that would make better use of that land…and work for the business.”

‘Forestry options’

Kenny went on to say that because the land that is now planted was “poorer quality land’ – and the McCauleys weren’t making a return on it – the time had come “to do something about that”.

“We looked at our planting options; at that time we were buying material from Western Forestry Co-op – it was established in the 1980s to support farmers who were venturing into planting some of their land,” he added.

“We approached the co-op about planting our land; we looked at land suitability, soil type and the different options available to use in terms of tree species.

“Because of our firewood business we were keen to get a species that was going to produce a good product for our operation.”

He then pointed out that while broadleaves – oaks, ash, etc. – were deemed to be more suited to the business side of things, the tree species didn’t actually suit the soil type or the ground where he and his father were established.

“We had to look further down the line at that stage and eventually we settled on a mix of birch and alder,” said Kenny.

The plantation is now six years old and going from strength to strength since its inception in 2013.

“This also links in with our firewood business and gives us the opportunity to produce crop in a few years’ time; it also diversifies our farm and makes good use of the poorer quality land that we were making no return on.

“Earlier this year we planted another couple of acres of marginal land  – there is a higher mix of birch and we also have mountain ash in this new plantation.

“It’s all working well for us.”