Stephen Shorten is a bright, articulate and hardworking farmer. He lives and farms in Enniskeane, Co Cork.
He loves his life on the land, working with his sister, Fiona, mixing dairy and cereal production to provide a good living off the west Cork soil.
Stephen is ambitious.
Before embarking on a life as a farmer, he toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist.
But farming won out in the end, and his life as a farmer is something he would wholeheartedly recommend.
His life experience, however, of dabbling in an off-farm biofuel enterprise was something he cautions gravely against.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wants global transport in 2050 more than 25% powered by biofuels, compared to 4% now. West Cork farmers responded to the rise of biofuel nearly 20 years ago.
But Stephen’s story of how he and a group of neighbouring farmers embarked on the ambitious crusade to create a viable local biofuel business, and lost almost everything as a result, is a compelling, unfortunate story.
Stephen wants it to serve as a warning to all about the dangers of embarking on a business that hinges on the whims and fancy of Government policy.
Stephen’s biofuel dream began when he was appointed to the board of Bandon Co-Op.
I became a member of the board of Bandon Co-Op in and around the year 2000, and what is encouraged when you join a board such as Bandon is to do a course with ICOS [the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society]
“I was invited to do a diploma course in UCC on a project of my choice, so I choose, in hindsight foolishly I suppose, biofuels. Renewable energy at the time was a buzz word, as it is now again. The sugar beet industry, I realised, was on the way out, and I knew crops were being grown elsewhere in Europe for biofuel.
“So yeah, I decided to go for it.”
“I did my project, got my diploma. All was fine. End of story. I thought no more about it.” But fate, misfortune, or bad luck even, intervened when a group of local farmers who had been to Germany to see biofuel produced by German farmers approached Stephen, with the view of carrying out a feasibility study into opportunities of developing a biofuel business here in Ireland.
At that time, the Irish government had come up with a pilot scheme for fledging biofuel companies, on the back of a European directive on renewable energy. It was a good idea. The country was flying. It would be good for the environment. What could possibly go wrong?
“The Government’s idea was that a subsidy would be paid to the likes of us, so that an indigenous biofuel industry, maybe seven or eight individual production facilities dotted throughout the country, would be producing biofuel.”
To the ambitious group of ten farmers, it looked like a golden opportunity.
They decided to form a company called Gro-Oil.
“We started with a small biofuel plant, which only produced a few hundred litres of biofuel with every production run. But it was enough to get us up and going.
“Our oilseed rape was grown locally, we had customers in Cork County Council and nearby Carbery for our biofuel, with the ESB and An Post also showing interest in doing business with us.
“Very quickly, we decided to upscale.”
A bigger plant was constructed in 2004, a large sum in the region of hundreds of thousands was invested by the entrepreneurial group, some LEADER funding was also forthcoming. The stakes were higher, but things were looking up.
“We had our customers, the economy was booming. The Government was stressing that it was a European initiative with no danger of it being stopped.
We asked them many times about this, and were assured that it was here to stay. ‘This is the future,’ we were told
“Back then, everything was being driven by what we are hearing about now again, carbon emissions.
“We were told that, by 2020, there would be carbon fines, so our project ticked all the boxes. From the Government’s point of view, it would have the added bonus of having the ESB and An Post, state companies, running vehicles on this fuel.
“We had constructed our plant with interim planning permission, but were struggling hard to get full planning permission. We were proposing a rural location, and for the long term, the council was demanding that we upgrade the roads leading to the proposed plant. This would involve substantial spending.”
And while the group struggled in getting planning for its operation in Bandon, full planning permission had been granted for an industrial-scale biofuel plant in Tipperary, but where the co-op behind the venture was no longer interested in constructing.
With worries that the Bandon operation could be shut down, if outline planning was all they could obtain, the group of 10 west Cork farmers set up a meeting with representatives from the Tipperary venture.
At the time west Cork farmers were growing about 3,000 acres of oilseed rape for Gro-oil.
A deal was done, for €2.4 million. The Tipperary site was purchased with the view that it would be a central location, beside a motorway which gave access to all four corners of the country.
The group went back to the bank, funding was granted. Corrib Oil now became interested in coming on board.
Corrib would provide the big money needed to construct a biofuel plant.
Now, Gro-Oil, a company set up by the ambitious group of west Cork farmers, had farmers growing oilseed rape, customers willing to purchase all they could produce, a bank willing to back them, and a government supporting a green agenda. What could possibly go wrong?
The year was 2008. Bang!
The financial crash changed everything. Stephen Shorten explains what happened to Gro-Oil.
“When the crash came, the government was left scrambling for money. Revenue was scrambling for money.”
The government changed the rules of the scheme they were depending on.
Government support for indigenously produced biofuel was scrapped.
Overnight, Gro-Oil was forced to increase the price of a litre of its fuel by 45 cent. Gro-Oil and its farmer backers were left reeling. And while loyal customers like Carbery and Cork County Council supported them to the end, the writing was on the wall with the policy change.
Under changes to the scheme, oil companies were now encouraged to mix at least 5% biofuel into their oil.
“We approached many oil companies to see if they would do business with us, but we were literally laughed out of the meetings. ‘Why would we purchase it from you when we can purchase it far cheaper by the tanker from sources abroad?’ was the mantra.”
Oil companies here brought in biofuel from abroad, from companies in the US, and to this day, that is what is happening.
This Irish biofuel industry was dead before it ever really began.
The vision simply wasn’t there to see what a positive impact a native biofuel industry would have had on the local and rural economy. And with regards to our commitments for 2020, Stephen Shorten believes we would now be saving a lot of carbon fines money if the industry had been nurtured and allowed to develop.
“This was why the scheme was set up in the first place, biodiesel is zero-emission, it’s a clean-burning fuel.”
Gro-Oil was left with an unwanted site for which they had paid over €2m.
“We were left with debt on our shoulders. And with the best will in the world, none of us could service that debt.
“Once the crash came, we were looked upon as nothing but a cost to the state.
“Really, what I want is a message to warn other farmers, other individuals, other small businesses who are thinking of doing something like this to be careful.
“We cannot sort out the damage that was done to us.
“We have to deal with the collateral damage in our own way.
“The message coming out of this story must be, yes we need to do something about the environment, and yes, farmers want to be involved, as we do see ourselves as being the solution too.
“But we do really need everyone on board and working together.
“I would love if this was a positive story, but unfortunately we need to be wary of government schemes based on European directives, unfortunately you could put your money into them, and you could be left high and dry.”
Farmers want to be part of the climate solution
Unless your name is Donald Trump or Danny Healy-Rae, you will, to some degree, be concerned about climate change.
It’s hard not to be. It’s seldom out of the news.
Everyone, from Presidents wanting to seem responsible, to school children wanting to seem grown-up, are advocating that we do more to avoid an environmental calamity.
So who’s to blame?
Well, we could blame big industry, I suppose, for billowing out all that smoke.
We could blame big cities too, for the constant raw sewage they release into our seas.
We could even blame high powered gas-guzzling aeroplanes, and air travel in general.
We could, if we weren’t all so darn fond of flying.
No. It’s much easier to blame it all on farmers.
Farmers are to blame. That’s the line we are being fed, and it’s something many are swallowing with ease.
Dairy farmer Stephen Shorten loves the farming way of life, but finds it increasingly hard to be positive in farming with all the bad press.
“Obviously there is an environmental cost to food production. That’s a given.
“But it must be remembered too that we are currently feeding over 40 million people, we here in Ireland are exporting 90% of everything we produce.
“If a time comes when we are not allowed produce food, someone else will have to do it, at a higher cost to the environment, I believe.
“And I think that message isn’t getting out, it’s getting lost.
“As a farmer, it can be hard at the moment to turn on the radio and listen to someone, perhaps from the vegan community, knocking farmers. ‘Farmers must change, they must do this, they must do that.’
“And for someone who has been farming for many years, who perhaps has put down many hard years on the land, who grew up hearing people praise the way of life and mention how much of a contribution farmers make, to now hear farmers stand accused of being terrible people creating all these problems for the environment must surely be hard to take.
“Farmers would much prefer to be the solution to all this.
“They don’t see themselves as the problem, but a picture is being painted of them being the problem.
“I think this skewed view, is making life very hard for many individual farmers.”