Elphin farmer explores the opportunities of miscanthus

The announcement last March by the Department of Agriculture that REPS payments will apply to the planting of miscanthus and other energy crops has stimulated significant interest in elephant grass in rural Ireland in recent weeks.  Elphin farmer Martin Beirne is one of the farmers who have embraced this new departure in Irish and European agriculture. Having extensively explored and researched the energy crop sector – he travelled to Germany and to Scandinavia last winter – he took heart from Minister Coughlan’s announcement and planted fifteen acres of miscanthus in early May. The REPS assurance given by the Minister complements bio-energy establishment grants of €1,450 per hectare, EU energy premia of €45 per hectare, and a national payment of €80 per hectare. Payments will apply to crops occupying 25% of one’s holding (or 10 hectares, depending on which is greater). An adjusted REPS 3 payment of €155 per hectare is also available. This payment will increase to €189 under REPS 4. Martin has farmed 120 acres outside Elphin with his wife Tamara and their sons Shane and Ronan for 20 years. A native of Ballymore, Boyle, he inherited the farm from his uncle, the late Martin Beirne RIP, in 1988. He tells Roscommon People of his belief that energy crops are a viable alternative to a beef industry that is in interminable decline and explains that he believes that this nascent sector will emerge to a position of predominance in Irish agriculture in the coming years. ‘I’ve been frustrated for a long time now with the beef industry. There is very little scope in the area for profit in the beef area in the first instance and the factories play hell. Irish meat factories don’t treat Irish producers properly and I suppose I’ve been fed up with beef for at least 10 years,’ said Martin. ‘Five years ago I decided that I would definitely do something different. I considered Christmas trees, deer, ostrich farming, and all of the other things that we’ve all heard about but none of those options appealed to me. Miscanthus is something different; it makes sense financially and it’s clear that energy crops will become more and more viable in the next few years.’ ‘I chose it firstly because I suppose it’s suited to my land. Miscanthus produces high yields from a wide range of soils and it tolerates several pH values.   The optimum pH is between 5.5 and 7.5. I’ll harvest it in spring, which is ideal – I generally spread nitrogen at that time every year. ‘It is useful in many ways. It can be used for building insulation and for animal bedding but obviously its primary use is as an energy crop. It can be blended with sawdust into pellet form as fuel for domestic, community, institutional, and industrial boilers. ‘It can be left in baled or shredded form for combined heat and power units for industrial or institutional use. It is also produced in briquette form as a domestic fuel. ‘ The Elphin farmer explained that its utility is manifold: miscanthus producers will be able to enter the carbon credits market in the future. ‘There is also a market for it in terms of carbon. Below the ground, miscanthus roots act as a carbon sink to lock up atmospheric carbon dioxide. After four years, a crop of Miscanthus will retain seven to nine tonnes of carbon per hectare. Carbon credits fluctuate: currently they stand at €20 per tonne.’ So! Why miscanthus and not more conventional alternatives? ‘I love farming and I wasn’t keen on planting the land with forestry. I always enjoyed producing beef on this farm and we’ll continue to have cattle here. Beef production is frustrating in this day and age – that’s a reality that farmers must face – and farmers must consider other options. I chose elephant grass because it’s financially viable and because I wasn’t keen on planting the land with forestry. This way I’m still farming the land: I’m not consigning the land away from agriculture. ‘I think that there’s a great future for energy crops in Irish agriculture. This is one of the best ways forward. It is costly to establish initially but it’s very viable in the long-term. Twenty tonnes of miscanthus have the same heat value as 12 tonnes of coal. ‘I think that the government’s support for it is illuminating too: there is clearly a desire at national and EU level for us to dramatically increase the size of the national crop.’