Profit may be found in neglected woods
Processed timber can make a valuable contribution to farm incomes. Kate Stebbens starts this special feature with a look at farm woodland mangement
IAN Hetheringtons woods are typical of many on UK farms.
His 4ha (10 acres) of woodland at the 32ha (80-acre) Heugh, a beef farm near Brampton in Cumbria, had not been worked for 50 years and is of low value.
"The good trees have long since gone, leaving a few oaks, which are gnarled, split and short. There is a lot of neglected hazel coppice, a few long, thin ash and some better quality cherry," he explains.
Mr Hetheringtons main reason for bringing the woodland under management is to increase the capital value of his farm, and he feels that in the short term his costs and income will just about break even.
Like most farmers, he believes the main factor stopping him profiting from his woodland is a lack of grants, though he does receive income from a Woodland Grant Scheme and Woodland Improvement Grant.
And the woodland is on a valley side, which makes it expensive to work. "The only way that I can ensure I cover my costs is to do as much of the work myself and to be selective about when I bring in contractors," he says.
The difficulty of making a profit from small poor-quality neglected woodlands is the main reason why so many are to be found on farms.
But by processing – to add value to the produce – and by cutting production costs, many woods can make a valuable, albeit small contribution to farm incomes.
Research to back this up has been carried out for Cumbria Broadleaves by the Forestry Commissions technical development branch, funded by the Forestry Authority, MAFF, the Rural Development Commission and the EU.
Cumbria Broadleaves – a partnership of local and national organisations – advises farmers throughout Cumbria, where there are 10,000ha (25,000 acres) of neglected woodland.
The importance of using as much of your own labour as possible is stressed by project manager, Edward Mills. "If you have some unused woodland you want to bring under management, you are going to need spare labour to make it pay," he says. "You may also need storage space if you want to add value to your produce."
At the Heugh, the cost of harvesting and processing logs using farm-based equipment at commercial rates is £62.25/cu m. But with the owner providing some of the labour, the cost of production was reduced to £31.93/cu m, according to research carried out at the farm.
Working your own woodlands means spending valuable time. But many farmers have quieter times, although finding the chance for the sometimes necessary training may be difficult.
Perhaps the most straightforward way to improve the value of timber is to use it on farm. "A recent survey in Cumbria showed that farmers buy in an average of £1500 worth of timber a year – for fuel, fencing, stakes, pallets, etc. So if even half that comes from your own woodland, that will save you £750 a year." says Mr Mills.
Heating costs when using firewood in a modern wood-burning system can compare favourably with alternative fuels. A wood-burning central heating boiler could pay for itself in seven years, which is half its lifespan.
The main methods of processing timber to add value farmers should consider are for firewood and charcoal, advises Mr Mills. And again, the success of any of these enterprises often relies on the use of farm labour where possible.
Selling produce effectively requires knowledge of local markets and their prices. For this, many farmers, like Mr Hetherington, rely on outside advice.
Firewood is in demand in many parts of the country but prices vary from £30 to £60/t depending on local factors. Mr Mills suggests that farmers aiming for this market should consider a firewood processor.
At up to £3000 this will ease the physical effort of conversion and speed up operations considerably.
Mr Hetherington will be forced to use a contractor to extract the timber for firewood in difficult-to-work areas. He expects to get only about £5/t from the contractor, who will also convert and sell the timber for him. But on easier sites he will do much of the extraction himself. He expects then that he will make about £20/t.
Although Mr Hetherington believes most of his timber is only marketable as firewood, he has stored and sold some cherry separately. This went to wood turners, but the results were disappointing.
"I paid for the cost of my advert. Wood turners want only a few pieces. From three callers I sold about 15 of the 100 lengths I had."
Charcoal is also in demand, but the viability of this enterprise depends on whether there are local charcoal makers. Many farmers are also put off by the mess charcoal makers sometimes leave behind, adds Mr Mills.
Chipping is an enterprise less likely to be profitable. Farmers need a local market, such as an equestrian centre. Even then, delivered prices at £10-25/t compare unfavourably with firewood. Production costs are high, too. A chipper costs £4000-£20,000 and haulage of the bulky product is expensive.
Minimising production costs relies on using as much existing machinery as possible, advises Mr Mills. A tractor specifically designed for forestry work could cost £30,000, whereas even a two-wheel drive farm tractor can be adapted safely for about £2500.
ATVs can also be useful for extracting small loads with just the addition of a trailer.
Moving timber from the woodland edge to a road vehicle access point can cost a contractor £2-£5/t. So improving access for timber lorries can further cut costs. This could be particularly worthwhile if farmers already have the equipment to do this. *
Unused woodland, such as this, will need spare labour to make it pay, according to Cumbria Broadleaves.
Ian Hetherington hopes bringing his woodland area under management, will increase the capital value of his farm.