Our farming landscapes continue to change

Over the next few weeks Farming Life will reflect on the growing impact of anaerobic digestion (AD) within local agriculture and Northern Ireland’s rural economy as a whole. The feature will comprise three platform articles, which reflect the scale of the investment, the economic benefits of the new technology and the specific experiences gleaned by AD operators over the last number of years. The first of the three pieces follows:

Making best use of our land has always been the core challenge facing agriculture in Northern Ireland.

Over the years agricultural practices have changed, both in line with the opportunities posed by new technologies and the ever present need to ensure that those involved at the very heart of the farming industry can make the best possible living from it.

Energy security is as important for every society as is the food that is produced by farmers on a daily basis. Using our land to produce energy is not a new phenomenon here in Northern Ireland. For example, at the tail end of the 19th century local farmers grew in excess of 100,000 acres of oats. These crops were used to feed horses – the then power source for agriculture and many other aspects of the economy at that time. And it is in this context that the benefits of anaerobic digestion (AD) must be assessed in rural communities throughout the province. It is a proven technology, which can – and will – help improve energy security levels in ways that are totally compatible with the highest standards of environmental protection.

Today’s rural landscape is a very complicated one. Full time and part time farmers compete for the land they need to feed their stock and grow their crops. But as we look to the future, there is almost total unanimity regarding the need to ensure a viable future for those producers who wish to develop modern, sustainable farming businesses.

It is within this context that issues such as scale of operation and the adoption of new technologies must be considered. Where food is concerned, it is these farmers who will underpin the many thousands of jobs that already exist within the various processing sectors. It is these farmers who will also grow and develop the various alternative energy options for Northern Ireland that have a sustainable land use requirement, of which AD is one.

At its very heart AD requires the highest levels of competency where the growing of crops - primarily grass silage- and the management of slurry/ farm wastes are concerned. Moreover, the technology will not diminish Northern Ireland’s potential to produce milk, beef or lamb as there is a natural balancing point between the amount of grass that we can grow, the animals we can rear and the land area available on which to spread slurry.

There are currently 60 AD plants now operating in Northern Ireland. They will continue to play a key role in developing the province’s energy security needs for many years to come. From a purely logistical perspective they are helping to balance out the grid, generating electricity on a 24:7 basis. All of this is good news for the rural economy. Equally, the AD plants now operating require the active input of the farmers supplying the silage and slurry, which constitute the raw materials from which the green electricity generated is sourced.

All of this is good news for production agriculture here in Northern Ireland. The even better news is the fact that the AD plants now fully operational will be part of our rural infrastructure for many years to come.