Farm of the Week: Planting the seed, reaping the harvest

Mike Weighell
Mike Weighell
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Renewable and biomass are buzz words of our time. Chris Benfield found a simple illustration of what they mean.

FARMER Mike Weighell planted trees 11 years ago – and logs now supply most of his winter heating.

Because he started early and is already reaping the benefits, he has become poster boy of an advertising campaign by the Woodland Trust to get others interested. (Call the Trust on 0845 293 5689).

Mr Weighell is 41 and runs Dromonby Hall Farm, at Kirkby-in-Cleveland, under the cliff edge of the North York Moors, near Stokesley, with his father, Trevor, 67.

His mother, Pat, runs bed and breakfast for walkers, anglers and businessmen commuting to Middlesbrough.

The farm runs 70 ewes producing butchers’ lambs, and arable fields producing fodder-grade winter wheat and barley and hay, haylage and straw for horses.

Mr Weighell has a morning job as stockman on a neighbouring suckler farm and helps out a dairyman friend, Nick Hugill, in exchange for return favours.

The original farmhouse has been split and one half sold, to finance his parents’ bungalow. An outbuilding has become a small supplies outlet for BATA. In this way, the family run two homes from 200 acres, including 30 rented.

In 1999, they picked up on one of the incentives to take a bit of land out of production.

“We are talking about wet ground and awkward ground, where you had to work hard to get a tonne from two acres,” sums up Mike Weighell.

The Forestry Commission paid for saplings, stakes and sleeves. He did the planting himself, over about a month, for the first hectare. He planted two more hectares in following years, in plots scattered around the farm so they double as weather barriers. The Government promised – and still will – about £300 a hectare for 15 years, depending on cropping foregone.

The mix includes oak, ash, sycamore, lime, birch, horse chestnut, wild cherry and a selection of conifers, which are a personal enthusiasm. Ash is probably the best all-round log. Oak burns hot but is hard to get going. Birch and cherry burn a bit fast.

He has been meticulous about pruning side-shoots, to encourage a good trunk. Now he has ash and grey alder up to 40 feet tall and a foot in diameter. And with the odd mature tree elsewhere on the farm, trimming and thinning and coppicing are giving him enough wood to run a simple 8KW stove, in his living room, 24 hours a day from November to April.

He says: “Before, I just had an open fire and I was spending about £1,500 a year on oil for central heating for a two-bedroom house. I still use the boiler for hot water, and for extra heating when it is very cold, but I have cut the bill by half.”

He is burning four-and-a half-tonnes of logs, which would probably cost £400 to buy.

He likes the trees and the wildlife they harbour, and he likes not having to work the land they are in. Also, he likes the comfort of having his own supply. A 30MW power station burning biomass down at Wilton is already mopping up a lot of the spare forestry wood locally.

From the start, the woodland came out of the farm area for Single Farm Payment purposes and could not be counted as set-aside in any other environmental schemes. To get into Higher Level Stewardship, which is another important strand of the farm income, the Weighells had to sacrifice some more margins, for watercourse protection and planting for the benefit of bees and birds.

It meant they could afford to keep the old-fashioned layout of the farm – fields ranging from six to 30 acres – and it suited the water-catchment rules which applied.

But Mike is wondering what will happen if the NFU-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment fails to deliver the level of voluntary setaside Defra requires.

“It has been suggested that a compulsory set-aside would be in the region of six per cent of arable land,” he says.

“Now, would that be six per cent on top of what I have already done, or on top of what the CfE has persuaded somebody else to do?

“I wonder if Defra could afford to assess individual cases. It seems to me there is a danger we would just get a flat-rate requirement. I am a supporter of the CfE and the stewardship schemes but farmers need reassurance that they are not going to be disadvantaged by getting into them.”

The CfE admits he has identified a risk. Campaign organiser Corrina Gibbs said: “It would not be fair, and we are pressing Defra for a commitment that it will not happen. Meanwhile, the more voluntary help we get, the less likely legislation is.”

Having gone down the route of rewards for green behaviour, Mr Weighell got interested in wind turbines. He has just put up his first – an 11KW Gaia, which should give 25,000 KWH a year in local conditions.

He would have connected it to his house but it was going to cost £8,000 for 280 metres, so he just connected to the grid, which was only 60 metres.

He reckons the Feed-in Tariff for renewables will repay him in 10 years and then give him 10 years of profit. He is contemplating a couple more.

He comments: “Everybody thinks Middlesbrough is the industrial centre around here but I always say the moors have been at the cutting edge for much longer, with ironstone mining, alum mining and agriculture. Why not energy production? This farm had its own windmill in 1150.”

His interest in the local history and environment mop up any spare time. He has had a lifelong involvement with Scargill House, Upper Wharfedale, which is about to re-open as a Christian holiday centre, and he leads walks from there for his holidays.

He is also a guide for the Sierra Club of America for the Cleveland section of its coast-to-coast walks. Call 01642 712312.