17 May 2002

Young & multi-talented – thats UFU president

By Shelley Wright

JOHN Gilliland, elected earlier this month at 36 as the youngest president of the Ulster Farmers Union, is a man of many hats.

"Maybe some would say I wear too many, but I like a challenge," he says. "In fact, I need a challenge to get me out of bed in the morning."

As well as embarking on his two-year term as president, which he says is a great honour, Mr Gilliland is also Northern Ireland director on the board of the Home-Grown Cereals Authority and is a member of the governments agriculture and environment biotechnology commission.

He chairs a new charity in Northern Ireland, called Rural Support, which provides a confidential listening and advice line for farmers and the rural community. And his CV provides an extensive list of other achievements, ranging from being the first farmer to sell renewable electricity to the National Grid, to being appointed to his local branch of the RNLI.

"I survive on just four hours sleep a night," he says, which is just as well because he also has four young children and a 395ha (975-acre) mainly arable estate to run.

He is the fifth generation of his family to farm at Brook Hall Estate, Londonderry. And, although an owner-occupier of the land, Mr Gilliland describes himself as "a lifetime tenant" who is simply looking after the land for the next generation.

And that is why environmentally sensitive, sustainable farming is such a passion.

"Farming families in Northern Ireland are the most honest, hard working people you will meet. Most at the moment are working for a return well below the minimum wage. And what drives me is that I would hate to see a countryside without those families," he says.

"We as farmers provide other services to society rather than just food. Farmers have an economic, environmental and social role to play. But I believe we can do more.

"I believe we have a massive role to play in providing a service for the urban community in terms of environmental sustainability."

Practising what he preaches, Mr Gilliland is a pioneer in producing heat and electricity from renewable energy.

He started Europes first on-farm willow-fired combined heat and power plant in 1997, selling electricity to the National Grid, after being awarded the first on-farm, small-scale biomass contract under the UKs Non Fossil Fuel Obligation scheme.

"We now grow 110 acres of short-rotation coppice willow which act as a biological filter before providing wood chips for burning."

As well as selling power to the National Grid, the wood chips are also used as fuel to dry grain on the farm.

"I have always had a desire to show that progressive and sustainable agriculture can go hand-in-hand with environmental enhancement," he says.

But showing the public is every bit as important. "We put a chip boiler into a community alcohol treatment facility, which is a cross-border, cross-religion scheme.

"The boiler produces heat and, after insulating the building, has saved them 30% on their fuel bill.

"That is what its all about – farm in a way that is economically viable, that enhances the environment, and, most importantly, get the general public to appreciate how much farmers do for them."

Chipper…John Gilliland is a man with diverse interests.