ONE OF the UK's leading Christmas tree growers has invested in a renewable diversification project that is now helping to fire up other agricultural businesses in Tayside.

Family-run business Tayside Forestry has been growing Christmas trees in the heart of the Angus countryside for nearly sixty years, and currently harvests over 80,000 trees each year on the 550-acre Templeton Christmas tree farm, which has also diversified into agri-tourism, with a café and gift shop.

Its investment of £500k in renewable energy has successfully generated significant new income streams, as well as creating new jobs.

Owner Brian Hughes explained: “The NFU had been encouraging farmers and growers to explore the potential cost saving and new income streams from renewables. The farm was already benefitting from the installation of a 15kW wind turbine and two solar photovoltaic systems through the Feed-in-Tariff scheme. I thought that the next natural step could be biomass.

"Neighbouring fruit farms in Angus and Perthshire had installed biomass to heat their polytunnels. In looking for a project to work in conjunction with the biomass, I rekindled an idea that my late father had tried out 40 years ago – firewood.

"Wood burning stoves along with outdoor living products such as chimineas, firepits and pizza ovens are experiencing a huge upsurge in popularity," he noted. "Research indicated that more than a million homes now have one, with 175,000 new ones being installed every year. I liked the idea of being able to dry firewood logs and heat the café and farms buildings, whilst generating payments through the RHI scheme.”

Tayside Forestry initially installed a 500kW biomass boiler linked to two drying floors. A successful firewood business was established, supplying dry wood with a moisture content below 25%, with both the firewood and the biomass chip processed on site.

Going further, Tayside Forestry is a now an 'off grid' business with a combined heat and power boiler producing electricity to power the farm as well as exporting electricity back to the grid. Two further biomass boilers are in the process of being installed as well as an additional 60 m3 drying floor. There is even an electric car in the vehicle fleet now.

Mr Hughes added: “Our diversification into biomass has not been without it’s challenges. Any venture into rural diversification requires so much more than just a good idea. To survive you need to have in place some clear plans, goals and the confidence in your choices to ensure you overcome the challenges that you’ll encounter and to make sure you succeed.

"We have kept focused on the production of our biomass and CHP chip," he said. "By working on improving the quality of our chip as well as automating production and grading, we have optimised the return we are achieving.

"The Christmas tree business is by nature a seasonal one and by adding firewood to the mix I haven’t made life easy for myself over the winter months! The good thing about the investment in biomass is that, unlike Christmas trees and firewood, it provides a year-round income.”