Co-operation is key to growing a private forestry enterprise

Private forestry growers have been matching Coillte for acreage planted.

But they have one major disadvantage — private plantations average eight hectares (20 acres), ruling out economies of scale.

The route therefore was to work together to maximise cost savings, negotiate the best sale prices, and share experience and knowledge. Hence the growth of forestry groups nationwide over the last 10 years.

The Forestry Owners’ Co-operative Society (FOCS) was launched in Macroom, Co Cork, last May. It is one of two growers’ co-ops in Ireland.

FOCS grew out of the West Cork Growers Group, which in turn was an amalgamation of the Ballyvourney and Dunmanway Growers Groups formed by Teagasc in 2006.

“There’s safety innumbers,” says grower Michael Greany from Cloyne in East Cork. Grouping offers economies for the cost of machinery, thinning, inspections, paths, and roads. “As well as sharing a brain foundation, we would be sharing the mechanics that go with it,” says Michael. Lobbying power would be better too, he says.

He and wife Catherine, who inherited the land, have two forest plots of 17.4ha and 14.1ha, and 6ha of permanent pasture near Kildorrery in North Cork. They are both from farming backgrounds.

One plot has been growing for six years, and the other for eight. The main crop is Sitka spruce (80%), with 20% diverse, made up of Japanese larch, ash, alder, and native elder. Their first product will be thinnings, in 10 years’ time.

Forestry doesn’t suit everyone, and all the factors have to be weighed, says Michael. He and Catherine talked to contractors, visited Teagasc exhibitions, and talked to those who planted and those who didn’t. Then they listed the pluses and minuses.

This is the first step where FOCS can help, he says. “I’d suggest that anyone that has any interest should talk to people that already have trees in a growing group.”

There are people at all stages of tree growing who can help potential growers make that decision.

“I’ve talked to people who are just getting into trees, as well as people who are in a forestry programme for ages, and I think that’s the beauty of a growing group. You get the young, semi-mature and mature of the actual tree-growing population, and you get a mixture of ideas. Sharing the brain foundation, you get the pluses and the minuses.”

The pluses won in their case — a potential pension, something to pass to their children, a long-term investment, a premium for the first 20 years, and thinning halfway through to final sale of the trees.

“We’re away from the land, so it was the most practical thing to do,” says Michael.

“At this point in time, there is demand for every piece of the tree, there is no waste product,” he says, adding that brash, bark, and everything, is taken for wood pulp. He says there is a sawmill shortage, and we’re still importing tonnes of timber.

The fact your land is effectively committed in perpetuity to growing trees is a minus.

“Once you commit the ground to growing trees, it’s committed for the lifetime of the ground. You will not be able to get a felling licence to cut those trees in 30-40 years’ time unless you agree to re-plant. Once you have your harvest from the forest. and you plant again, there’s no subsequent grant for reforestation. You’ve got to realise that. This is the one issue that turns people off.”

The Greanys also experienced the complicated process of consolidating what was a fragmented piece of land.

“It is solely up to the individual grower. Does it suit you?” he asks. Among those that went ahead, he says he hasn’t met anyone who was dissatisfied with growing.

Past the decision stage, there are numerous steps which FOCS can help with.

“First of all, you have to submit an application for the right to grow trees on your property. You need to get your soil analysed, per acre, before you grow. It is better for you anyway to see what species would be suitable.”

Growers tend to push the native species, as they will be suited to the soil and carry their own premium. Spruce, he says, has a lesser demand on soil and is faster growing, and is hence an earlier cash crop, but young ash (around 35 years) is also in demand for hurley making.

With REPS and FEPS, people were planting less ground and leaving more area open to diversification, wildlife corridors, natural vegetation, and more native trees.

“I have noted myself that with set-aside, REPS, and FEPS, wildlife has increased immensely in this area, as well as others. I’ve seen more stoats than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve heard the cuckoo.”

Birds of prey, including the common buzzard, have also increased, he says.

He believes aesthetics are important. “If I want to go on retreat now, I can come up here, and listen to the water and see the trees,” he says, laughing.

Aesthetically, what you see first are your broadleaf trees, he says. “For diversification, we’ve planted holly for nesting. I have owl boxes and bird boxes. We have a battle for the owl boxes. The owls are subletting to the crows at this point in time, in one of them.”

Some other issues where the co-op can help include rights of way; threats to the crop such as whipping, weevils, hares, deer, and grey squirrels in some areas; inspections; insurance; and Teagasc membership.

“And do you allow a walkway through?” he asks.

With many plots, you can negotiate a common price for harvesting, he says.

“Rather than fighting for something on your own, you have the growers’ co-op, which is much better able to negotiate than an individual.”

FOCS, he says, can advise people who are planting for the first time and answer the ‘what ifs’ — at what stage will we get involved, how much will we plant, is our land suitable, will it devalue our land?

“The first four years are vital for your trees. They have to get above the weed line and go for sky,” he says.

“I can’t commend the principal members of the co-op enough,” Michael concludes.

Further information: William Melville, secretary, FOCS, or 086-2456941.


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