Elected chairman of the IFA Farm Forestry Association two years ago, Michael Fleming is enjoying every minute of the challenging workload the office brings.
A member of the IFA for the past 20 years, the Kerry native made his way up through the ranks as county representative, Munster representative and vice-chairman before taking over in the top office in April 2012.
“Our number one function is to represent farmers at local, national and European level and getting the fairest deals possible through lobbying, negotiations and sitting on various working groups,” Michael – who has been involved in forestry for the best part of 30 years – outlined to Irish Tractor & Agri magazine.
The IFA boasts approximately 5,000 forestry members and, on top of influencing forest policy to the benefit the development of the farm forestry sector, the association provides access to independent professional advice on all aspects of forest management and timber marketing.
The dissemination of latest news and information through texts, emails, website and newsletters as well as conference and training courses is also top of their agenda and the website –www.ifarm.ie – is a one-stop-shop for all forestry needs.
The website includes forestry and wood energy directory, timber marketing advice, forest owner producer groups and much more.
At this point in time, the Forestry Bill, which is current at report stage, is occupying the mind of Michael and his fellow members.
“We’ve a huge body of work on at the moment. The Forestry bill is going through the Dail at the minute. In fairness, we’ve had good correspondence with Minister Tom Hayes and were successful in securing quite a few amendments to the original bill.
“It is at the report stage and we’re waiting to tick of some other issues but there has been flexibility and leeway from the original bill.”
Forestry is playing an increasingly important economic, environmental and social role in Ireland and the strategic goal of the Forestry bill is “to develop an internationally competitive and sustainable forest sector that provides a full range of economic, environmental and social benefits to society.”
“The IFA believe that it is unacceptable that farmers/forest owners are expected to commit to forestry for life when there is no guarantee that the full potential of the crop will be realised.
“In the current bill the Minister has the right to revoke or suspend a felling licence without any compensation for a potential loss attributed to the forest owner.
“The Forestry Act (Northern Ireland) 2010 allows for compensation in the event of a felling licence refusal and it is essential that our Bill adopts a similar model.
“The fact that the Minister can vary the terms and conditions of contracts, suspend or revoke a felling licence or approval etc. also introduces a lot of uncertainty for private forest owners in relation to the management of their investment.
“If these conditions were to remain the farmer must be compensated for any loss incurred if he cannot realise the full potential of his crop.”
The IFA believes that a number of amendments are required to the consultation paper on the new Forestry Programme 2014-2020 to encourage private sector involvement in the industry.
The premium payments proposed in the consultation paper must be amended if Ireland is to reach its planting targets of 10,000ha in 2015, up to 15,000ha in 2016 and onwards.
“It is vital for farmers that the premium payments are maintained over a 20 year period. In addition, IFA propose an increase on the existing premium structure.
“The last increase in premium payments in 2006 has been completely eroded by taxation cuts as outlined previously. The effects of these cuts are still being felt and this is clearly reflected in the recent planting figures.”
Another major issue facing Michael and his members is Ash dieback which is threatening the livelihood of many of those involved in the forestry industry. The deadly disease has spread to nearly every county in the country.
The tree disease has been found in 120 locations nationwide and resulted in the felling of 1,300 acres of forest.
“It’s quiet on that front at the minute because it is dormant. We carried out an extensive survey last year and there were a number of instances where it was removed and cleared. Another issue for us is the wind blow which has resulted in semi-mature forestry falling.”
The forest industry, comprising the growing, harvesting and processing of forest products makes a significant and increasing contribution to the Irish economy.
In 2010, the total value to the economy of the forestry growing sector was €673 million, while the overall forestry sector contributed an estimated €2.2 billion.
Forests now account for 10.8% of the land area of the country and support a vibrant, export oriented forest products sector with over 80% of wood based panels being exported. Harvest from Irish forests was 2.88 million cubic metres in 2010.
With increasing reliance on the export market, the importance of investment in innovation, research and development and added value cannot be overstated.
“You would have to be optimistic at bout the future outlook for the forestry industry,” Michael opined. “We are exporting quite a substantial amount of timber out of the country and you have to give credit to the processor, the people at the other end of the scale.
“When this country came to a standstill in 2007, they went out and sought new European markets. Demand is high and we have the capacity for the fastest growth rate in Europe.
“On the negative side, we have failed to reach our planting targets for the past three years and that is a major concern.”
Michael has been hands-on involved in forestry for the best part of 30 years and specialises in ground preparation and roadways for forestry.
The chairmanship of the IFA Forestry section is in safe hands.
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 3, August 2014