John and Ben Maguire at their Mountnugent farm with their forestry plantation behind.

Family’s circular approach to forestry and hedge business

A young Cavan man who won the Teagasc Student of the Year in the forestry category is looking to the future with optimism for his family’s enterprise.

The Celt met Ben Maguire and his father John at their beautiful farm Mountnugent. This elevated corner of Ballycan townland offers views of their commercial forest and Mullaghmeen beyond that.

Trees aren’t just detectable in the distance, they are all around the farm - impressive ash specimens which seem to have dodged the dieback bullet, chestnuts, and oak, lots of mature oak. The large open fields are bordered by full-bodied hedgerows. Close to their fine stone farmhouse stands a mini-nursery where they have grown a range of saplings from seed. Oaks dominate and John admits to having a soft spot for the species estimating there’s half a dozen different varieties of oak in the nursery. Some of these trees will go to the Tidy Towns group in the village, others he’s growing for clients.

“I always had a love for trees and plants,” confirms John, who after completing his Green Cert went onto study horticulture.

“I always try to encourage a succession of trees. There’s a lot of storm damage trees coming down. It’s end of life for some trees, so replace them with new trees and away you go again.

“I get great satisfaction from driving around the country and seeing where I put in a hedge, or where I put in trees. It’s a bit of a hobby turn profession. ”

Given the focus on forestry at the home farm and John’s passion for trees, it was little wonder Ben would be drawn to the sector. Ben’s eagerness saw him undertake a chainsaw course as soon as he turned 16.

When Ben completed his Leaving Cert he was reluctant to go straight into college.

“I found the Ballyhaise course and I really enjoyed it. I did Level 5 and decided to go back and do level 6 to finish it out.

“I loved every minute of it,” he adds.

Ben was recently announced as winner of the forestry category and a finalist for the Student of the Year accolade across all of Teagasc’s campuses.

“It was brilliant,” he says of the accolades. “It was nice recognition of the work I did over the two years.

“I can’t say it was something I did alone, I got so much help from my two parents, from [Assistant Principal] Marianne Lyons in the college - she’s brilliant. We were left without two forestry teachers when I was in my level six and Marianne stepped in to teach us, turning her busy schedule into hectic and adding onto her work. And all the boys as well - it was always bouncing ideas off each other and learning together it was a group effort.

Upon completion of the course in March 2023, Ben pursued his studies with a degree in forestry at South East Technological University in Waterford. Had he decided to opt out of further studies, the Teagasc course had armed him with the practical know-how to secure “plenty of opportunities” through forest management, forest establishment and maintenance work.

“The industry is crying out for workers, they just can’t get them,” observes Ben.

Comparing the course in Ballyhaise to Waterford, he notes:

“You get a lot more practical training in Ballyhaise, but then in Waterford you have a lot of field days and you get to put what you are learning in the classroom into practice then.”

The Maguire forest is predominantly sitka spruce and was planted in 1992. Thus the time for harvest is nearing.

“Thirty five years, give or take is probably the average,” explains John of the age of such commercial forests when clear-felled. “Price per volume normally dictates when it’s going to happen.”

Ben is sporting a green polo-shirt with a logo reading GreenBreak - the family business. In addition to their forest the Maguires source and plant trees and hedging for clients.

“It gathered momentum - when you put in a hedge you take out a hedge,” explains John. “We realised we had started to accumulate a lot of green waste here. We invested in a shredder for the back of the tractor and started shredding our own stuff here.”

John had enough foresight to see the potential in turning the ‘green waste’ into an asset.

“We’re producing two streams - one is a compost, the other is a mulch, or it can go out as livestock bedding.”

Approximately 60% is a woodchip mulch product and the remaining 40% goes towards compost. The greener softer material is stored, turned and made into compost.

“We heap them up like pyramids nearly in the yard,” he explains before we turn around a corner and there are the mounds of varying colours. Whether it’s a dirty blond or a burnt umber depends on how far the composting process has advanced.

“What happens with the compost is bacteria breaks it down.

“You feed the bacteria by turning it, so you’re giving them oxygen. That breaks it down very quickly.”

It produces a rich compost with a subtle, sweet, earthy smell. John describes as a “sterile product”. This is sold primarily to gardeners, DIYers, and local customers.

The second stream, the woodchip mulch can also be used by those keeping animals or livestock.

“We have people looking it for bedding for kennels, sheep, calves, sucklers, horses - they are all coming in for bedding, particularly this year with straw being so expensive, it has turned our attention to this.”

According to John the mulch has a surprisingly long duration.

“For farmers, the one application for woodchip for their animals - it will get them through the winter in most cases, because as they walk through, it’s turning and turning and they’re refreshing it all the time.”

When the bedding is done, it can quite swiftly be finished off as compost or go direct to the land with it.

The Maguires have recently succeeded getting planning permission from Cavan County Council to change the use of their yard from a farmyard to a composting facility.

“We can open the gate to the public and put a gate fee on it,” says John, “and that’s an important part because it has to be sustainable to keep the thing going, and keep us going.”

They will be regulated to ensure they turn over 3,000 tonne per year - “It’s a small amount compared to other companies that are at it, so we want to aim to produce a top end product at a premium price.”

John is encouraged too given the move towards peat free compost.

They intend to register their compost and mulch with the relevant bodies and have it certified as organic products.

The Maguires continue to rear sucklers at reduced numbers. Ben’s toying with the idea of employing an agro-forestry approach to some good quality fields beside their plantation.

“Put them [trees] well spaced out and you can still allow for grazing and mowing and everything as well,” he explains.

While Johns focus is more occupied by the new compost and mulch limb of the enterprise, Ben is eager to pursue their hedge and tree maintenance business.

“That’s something I enjoy - whether Dad doesn’t want to continue on with it, I’ll keep it up anyway,” he vows.

“I can see a future in forestry definitely” he says noting the compensation issue for ash dieback is finally seeing progress. “Fortunately there was no ash in our plantation below, but there were an awful lot of people in the country who struggled with it.

“At the moment there isn’t a whole pile of incentive to plant, but it is improving. The main target should be landowners and farmers and they’re not going to plant up their land if they don’t think it’s going to be viable for them - there needs to be incentive whether it’s financial or carbon credits.

“But it’s improving day by day, there’s always something new coming out and there’s more people going into the sector.”

Ben notes when their forest is harvested, if permitted, he will replant predominantly sitka again.

“It’s going the way that they don’t want us to plant sitka, but it’s what Ireland needs - we need lumber. The monetary value of it is brilliant and Ireland is the best country in the world for growing sitka spruce - it reaches maturity in 30-odd years and it can grow so well in bad conditions - wet fields, poor fields.”