Come visit us: Willow harvesting at the mill

The Farmer Network and Iggesund Paperboard Ltd invite farmers to join them to see the willow harvesting behind the papermill on Lowca Lane at Workington on open days on

Tuesday 4th and Wednesday 5th October. The open days will run from 10am to 4pm and farmers can drop in at any point during the day.

Farmers will have the chance to see how the process works and the machinery involved, which was one of the main concerns for the farmers considering a crop.

There will also be 2 evening harvesting sessions

Monday 26th September, 4 – 6pm at the Workington site, then on to Hopes Auction, Wigton for peas, pies and mash 7- 9pm joined by Robinson+Co Accountants.
Thursday 13th October 4 – 6pm at the Workington site, then on to Mitchells Auction for peas, pies and mash 7 – 9pm joined by Robinso+Co Accountants.

To book a place at any of these sessions contact The Farmer Network – telephone 01768 868615, text 07714 187034 or email info@thefarmernetwork.co.uk

Willow harvesting

Background
Recently 21 farmers enjoyed a tour of short rotation coppiced willow sites, organised by The Farmer Network, where they heard about the benefits and costs involved. One of the host farmers, Steve Clarke, explained why he selected particular fields to establish the crop and how it had ’caught’ debris and reduced the damage caused by Storm Desmond in December.

Many farmers are concerned about the roots of the willow getting into and blocking drains. This has not proved a problem with the mixture of 8 varieties of willow that are being planted, as they are shrub varieties and not tree varieties. A few plants were dug up to show just how shallow the roots were, but the depth of drains does need to be known before planting.

Sandy Brown from Mitchells Ltd described the process of assessing the suitability of a site for a willow crop and the environmental impact assessments and permissions that are required before planting. She also gave advice on maximising the habitat for birds with hedges and sometimes using an under-sown crop. The willow is classed as a crop by Rural Payments Agency and environmental stewardship agreements can be amended to incorporate the crop.

The willow provides good year round habitat for birds and early pollen for bees in the spring. A working group has been set up to monitor how the willow is planted affects soil erosion during flooding and heavy rainfall.

Concerns about weed and rush control, precision spraying and use of cover crops were discussed. Planting once in 22 years is the main expense for the farmer, and the cost of this is paid back after the first harvest in year 3. The crop can continue to be harvested every 3 years for up to 6 cycles. One of the main factors determining productivity is good establishment; the young plants need to be planted into a clean seedbed in spring. This entails preparing the land in the autumn, soil sampling and any lime or fertiliser being used to create ideal conditions of pH 6. This and cutting the crop in the first year to encourage tillering is the main cost to the farmer, it is not a ‘hungry’ crop.

The harvesting costs are covered by Iggesund, as part of a 22 year contract. A lot has been learned about the practicalities of growing willow through Iggesund’s work in Cumbria over the past 4 years. The company helps farmers to manage their willow crop and decide on the right time for harvesting (usually October to May), as well as providing advice on how to handle the chopped product until it is collected. They have also developed a partnership with Rickerby Ltd who have been developing a range of equipment and harvesting techniques to suit the Cumbrian climate.

The yield of the crop varies depending on the site, but as the contracted price for the crop is index linked, farmers can expect to earn more than £220 per acre per year, over the 22 year contract period. Will Rawling, chairman of The Farmer Network said “This carbon cycle crop could have a role on farms in all areas of Cumbria, providing a regular income and building in some business resilience by diversifying some land, when markets and payments for other crops could be quite uncertain over the next few years”.