Carlshead Farm – SRC Willow Pioneers
Gareth Gaunt of Carlshead Farm in Yorkshire explains how he was part of the pioneering first generation of Willow growers in the UK.
Gareth became a farmer in 1997, when he stepped into take over the family farm due to his father’s ill health. This was a big step – he’d trained as a specialist equine veterinarian and had been practising for five years when the call came.
He immediately set to, and began by analysing the farm’s finances. He discovered that the farm simply wasn’t working at its best. Historically, Carlshead Farm was arable, (500 acres total: 220 acres of permanent grassland, about 120 acres arable and 80 acres willow. The rest is forestry and stewardship) but much of its land was poor quality, with heavy clay soils.
It was very difficult to work, with very short windows of opportunity to drill, to harvest. The land was either sopping wet or baked solid and you had to hit that little moment to get the crop in so yields weren’t ever very great.
As Gareth looked at the financial viability of the farm, he spotted a new crop opportunity – SRC Willow. This was back in 1998. Willow was originally marketed as a set-aside option, for the worst land on the farm. Research by John Strawson in the early 90s showed that willow could outperform wheat on these kinds of soils and that’s what changed Gareth’s mind. Carlshead Farm was already involved in high level stewardship with margins all around the fields.
The environment is quite high up on my agenda anyway and I just thought this crop will fit in really well with it.
Gareth says, “First of all I liked the idea of coppicing – we’ve got quite a lot of woodlands here and I had been figuring out how we could get all our woodlands back into traditional coppices.” Traditional coppicing produces lots of small diameter product that is manually intensive to harvest. The modern twist is using modern machinery to plant and harvest it. Gareth became excited at the prospect of minimal land work to grow Willow and in turn, the environmental benefits that it brought to his farm. “My heavy clay soils would only be ploughed the once, at the very beginning when we planted the crop, and that would be it so no more carbon releasing out of this soil.” SRC Willow farming means that carbon release from soil is minimal, so Gareth was particularly interested in this crop.
He had already pioneered renewable energy as he’d installed a 150kW biomass boiler to provide heat to the office complex on the farm so making the step to SRC Willow was too attractive to ignore. Carlshead Farm is currently using 150 tonnes of dry willow woodchip a year to heat two farmhouses and the offices. Gareth is really pleased with the ease of use this new fuel system.
He got together with other growers and they formed a cooperative. After a shaky start with a CHP Boiler buyer going to the wall, the group found a new buyer in a power station supplying the National Grid. The station was in the process of converting their boilers from coal to biomass. For many years, Gareth was selling his crop to them. As the power station developed its biomass requirements however, they moved away from wood chip towards imported wood pellets. The relationship came to an end, and the cooperative needed a new buyer.
That’s when Neil Watkins came along.
He introduced us to our current buyer.
“Neil walked the crops with us, checked the health of the crops, advised us on crop health, advised on crop fertility, kept an eye on harvesting, checked it was done correctly so we were not getting contaminant into the chip harvest.”
Gareth was hugely impressed by Neil’s knowledge of SRC Willow. Neil was able to advise him on increasing his yield through careful use of inputs, both in weed control and in fertilisation.
Another reason for Gareth’s decision to stick with Willow was its ability to increase overall farm profitability by releasing overheads – particularly with machinery.
Everyone is moving to contractors, getting rid of their machinery and this was another reason to do that – it’s an expensive overhead that we just didn’t need with this crop.
Gareth is continuing to push the boundaries of Energy Crop growing. He’s very impressed with its excellent biodiversity attributes and its remarkable minimal input requirements. “The key is establishing it well; this can be a lot of work at first. You need a clean seedbed to get the plants going, but once it’s going, its fine. Very little messing with it.”
He occasionally uses a little bit of herbicide to reduce the weed burden but he’s now looking at other models that include livestock in amongst the willow trees. He’s received criticism from other growers saying that he’s turning good food-producing land over to renewables when he should be growing food but he’s increasingly convinced that the two models are not mutually exclusive.
I think we can do both. I could graze sheep, pigs and chickens in my willow plantation. They would benefit from the shelter and all the grazing opportunities from the different herbs and grasses that grow in there, giving them a very good quality of life.
Gareth believes there would even be a net benefit to the willow too: “Currently we’re adding a small amount of fertility, depending on soil analysis from Energy Crops Consultancy.” The advantage of allowing livestock to roam the willow and eat the weeds would be as they produce manure, it’s deposited right where it needs to be. Gareth says, “If I’ve got livestock in there, I don’t need to do that job; I’m always looking for that perfect circle of taking out and putting straight back in – with the annual leaf litter included, willow is even feeding itself to a certain extent.”
He says, “One of the other things about this crop is that it’s sucking in CO2 and photosynthesising it like mad, kicking out oxygen and fixing carbon within in all the roots, micro roots, stems and stumps themselves. We get a better yield, we get better production, ultimately that part of the willow is the circular bit in terms of carbon. We’re simply making it into a circle so we’re not doing what we’ve been used to be doing, digging out ancient carbon and burning it, we’re simply circulating it in the wood chip and definitely fixing it in amongst the roots and the ground.”
Gaunt is also very positive about the future – particularly for farmers who may be considering retirement – or wishing that they could.
I’ve got colleagues, getting on in years, who’re not so keen on working themselves to death in farming but are wanting a crop that will still give them a guaranteed income, so they can lay off their machinery and go and play golf!
He’s grateful to Neil for the expertise that Neil has passed on. “When it comes to harvesting, it’s critical to get the blade height right; too high, you get too many sprouts out the side, out laterally, then in subsequent harvests, it makes it a nightmare. Little details like that are really important.”
Gareth continued, “I think as farmers, we’ve all come across a great agronomist at some point in our farming careers. Well, Neil is that, to me. He’s the guy who’s got all the knowledge and expertise behind the Willow crop. He’s done so much research and work with government and environment organisations to make sure he’s sourced the best cultivars, to make sure he’s minimising chemical inputs, he’s always got the environment and the crop at the heart of the interest. I think the comparison is like this: where you’re growing your wheat or your barley and you know you’ve got a great agronomist, you hang on to him.
“Neil was just always the positive face that us farmers met and now I’m keen for him to carry on with that and help me achieve max fertility in my crop, deal with any weed issues, potential pest issues and ultimately make sure that the harvesting goes well and that I get the best out of my crop. If Neil can show he can do that with me then it’s money well spent.
You’ve got all the biodiversity within this crop and you’ve got all the climate change attributes of this crop too, so I can’t see this crop going away in a hurry. It’s up to us growers to realise the potential of the markets and take charge of those markets as well.