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Farmers Guardian: Willow crop proving its worth in East Yorkshire



WATER-HUNGRY energy crops such as willow could become more common on arable enterprises if Britain is to experience the wetter summers which experts have predicted. Olivia Midgley went to meet a willow grower to find out more.

Deluged fields surround John Hepworth’s farm in Rolston, near Hornsea.

Months of rain have left swathes of arable crops under inches of water, with flat land in areas such as Beverley and Hull being badly hit.

But Mr Hepworth believes the fields at Braemar Farm have escaped almost unscathed because of his thirsty willow crop.

“For anyone who has a problem with water, they should try willow,” says Mr Hepworth, who joined the green revolution five years ago.

“When we started growing it we realised everywhere we had a natural spring on the farm, the crop grew five times as much.

“Last year with the rain being as bad as it was, the willow loved it. The field was flooded for six months and it still grew.”

Flood prevention

Mr Hepworth, who used to run a dairy herd and 120 Saddleback breeding sows on the site, says the energy crop’s water needs have prevented the other arable crops from being flooded.

“We grow 24 hectares of barley which has not been flooded where my neighbours’ fields have been,” adds Mr Hepworth.

“You need 10 to 12 times as much water to grow willow as you do for growing corn, which is a good job because we’ve had 38 inches of rain in the last nine months.”

The crop was cut in March after reaching 11 metres (35ft) high in some areas.

“It grows 4 inches in diameter every year,” he says.

“It has grown 10ft since March.”

Contractors from ReGro spend about two-and-a-half days harvesting the willow which is then chopped into six-inch long billets and pelleted before being burnt.

Mr Hepworth says it costs £5,000 to harvest and stack the crop. It is then delivered to the Drax Power Station near Goole.


The former Harper Adams student received a £10,000 Defra grant to plant the crop in 2007 and says his farm has reaped the benefits ever since.

“It is an absolute haven for wildlife,” adds Mr Hepworth, who farms in the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.

“It is great for the biodiversity and the bonus is you can grow it just about anywhere, plus it is very low maintenance.

“We planted the seed in 2007 and rolled it and sprayed it with glyphosate and it got to 7ft high in its first year.”

A keen environmentalist, Mr Hepworth has picked up a string of awards for his work on the public footpath, bridleway and woodlands surrounding the farm and in 2009 he was presented with the Royal Forestry Society Excellence in Forestry Farm Woodlands award.

He began planting woodlands in 1989 with the help of a Woodland Grant Scheme.

The woodland now covers more than half the farm and contains flowering shrubs and a mix of trees including eucalyptus, conifer, ash, oak and hornbeam which has been designed to attract birds.

Mr Hepworth says: “I think woodland is very important, especially as we are trying to get all these young people into the industry. What are they going to do if there are no trees to plant, look after and chop down.

“People are putting log burners in their homes but they don’t have a continual supply. As more people do the same, it is going to be a problem unless we do more on the woodland side.

“As renewable energy becomes more popular, especially biomass, we are going to need a bigger supply.”

The view from the expert:

Growing short rotation coppice (SRC) and selling dried chip or billets to Drax is one option for farmers looking for a diversification option.

However, the best way to make money from biomass is to grow it for your own use. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) provides index linked payments of up to 8.3p per kilowatt hour (p/kWh) for farm businesses and district heating schemes using biomass. A farmer should be able to produce SRC chip for under 1.5p/kWh when the costs are spread over 20 years (even when you take account lost income from food production).

This provides a double whammy as most farms will be replacing oil at 60p/litre (5.7p/kWh) or bottled LPG at 45p/litre (6.8p/kWh) so there are immediate savings compared to fossil fuel plus the RHI subsidy on top.

A moderate sized farm currently using 10,000 litres of fuel a year might need a 50kW wood chip or log boiler. This might cost £45,000 fully installed.

You would need 3ha (7 acres) of SRC producing moderate yields (~6 odt/ha/yr) to be fully self-sufficient. Savings on oil should be about £4,000/year and the RHI rebate could amount to £5,800/yearr giving a payback of 4.6 years.

Based on current prices this would mean the farm would be £151,000 better off over the 20 years of the scheme.

Also, by growing your own you will be insulating yourselves against future price rises. So the profit is likely to be even greater. All this means if you can grow and use your own fuel, your gross margin will be more than £2,000/ha/year.

By contrast, your margin will be about £200/ha/yearr when selling to Drax or £380/ha/year when selling to a local heat user such as a school.  

It is a good idea to act quickly though – the Energy Crops Scheme which provides 50 per cent establishment grants ends in September 2013 while phase 2 of the RHI (which will be launched in July 2013) is set to become a bit more bureaucratic with additional sustainability criteria and emissions controls.


Facts about willow

Willow is a native tree species which enjoys wet conditions and can be grown from a single branch, cut from another willow tree

They have traditionally been used to make charcoal, cricket bats and even aspirin, but are now being turned into clean, renewable energy

In the UK, willow grows best when it is coppiced

At this point the wood can be harvested and turned into chips or pellets. These chips and pellets can then be used in a biomass boiler to create heat for your home or farm

The Renewable Heat Incentive offers energy crop users the chance to claim a fixed income for each kilowatt hour of heat they produce

Source: The National Non-Food Crops Centre