‘Willow incentives must mirror forestry sector’

Any efforts to grow willow for biomass production need a lot more Government support – to the same level as forestry, one long-time grower has said.

Pat Farrelly, part of Farrelly Brothers Agricultural Contracting, has been growing willow since 2006, and has recently reduced his planted areas, converting areas to grassland.

Speaking to AgriLand on the latest episode of FarmLand, Pat explained why he and his brother Peter had decided to grow willow in the first place, and the subsequent challenges they had encountered on the way.

The topic has come to light following Bord na Mona’s recent announcement of its intention to cease harvesting peat in 2025 and co-fire its plants using biomass fuels such as willow.

“We probably planted somewhere between 2,000ac and 3,000ac of willow all over Ireland; some of the land was suitable and some of it wasn’t,” Pat explained.

“We were given a lot of bad advice early on about what we should do, what way we should plant it, it needed no fertiliser; as regards the yields we were given wrong yields for this country – maybe they worked for other countries, I don’t know.”

You’d probably be lucky to get 7t/ac per year and the price that’s been paid for willow at the moment is not enough.

“A lot of the farmers can’t make money on it and it’s just not a good place to be at the minute. We’re not actively promoting willow because there’s no money in it for farmers,” he said.

However, the contractor and grower is of the view that it is possible for Ireland to grow large-scale supplies of willow – if sufficient support is given.

This, he said, must be ramped up in a similar vein to supports given to the forestry sector if biomass production is to properly take off in the country.

“I think we need to get probably up to 50,000ha of willow, which is a big ask. We need a lot of Government support; we need it to be rolled out on the basis of something like forestry where it’s 100% establishment grant and where they get a premium every year for probably the first 15 years.”

willow biomass energy crops

He added that planters would not need payment for years with a harvest, but other years would require payments.

“It needs to be incentivised the same way as forestry and it needs to be tax-free.

“The farmers I feel need to get some sort of compensation for carbon credits and should be able to charge whoever wants them so that they can sell the carbon credit to whatever company wants it.”

Regarding what sort of land is needed for planting willow, Pat said that, like all plants, willow will grow best on good land; while it’s possible to plant on marginal land, the results will predictably be poorer.

Pat also highlighted that more assistance needs to be provided to contractors who plant, cut and fertilise the willow for the machinery that is required.

“We put a lot of investment in and we gave it a fair shot for 10 years and it’s just we weren’t getting any help. We’ve no bother doing it; we know we’re able to do it, but need a bit of help.”