AN OLD Chinese proverb suggests: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

That is a saying to live by for EGGER UK’s director of forestry John Paterson, whose decades in the industry have not dimmed his enthusiasm for getting trees into the ground.

If anything, John’s understanding of where the UK now sits on the international scale of forest cover (low) and thus how our future domestic timber supply will measure up to demand (poorly), has only made him more determined to promote the message that where there is land, there should always be room for trees – and right now, the company is very keen that Scottish farmers hear loud and clear about its long-term demand for well-grown timber to feed its huge UK manufacturing base at Hexham, in Northumberland.

Bluntly put, EGGER’s business is making chipboard. Not the most glamorous product certainly, but more or less ubiquitous in modern housebuilding, both in its basic form for structural components of floors and walls, and in its lovingly laminated Sunday best when used in a range of applications including worktops and kitchen units, office drawers and desks, hotel panelling and shelving in shops.

EGGER is a very big player in the European wood-based materials sector. Founded in 1961 by Fritz Egger Snr at St Johann in the Tirol, Austria – and still a privately owned family business, with the founder’s sons, Michael and Fritz, sitting on its advisory board – the group has an annual turnover of more than €2.34 billion, with 8000 employees and 17 plants across Europe, making a range of chipboards and associated products.

Hexham was the Austrian company’s first foreign plant investment when it acquired the former Weyroc chipboard factory back in 1984. The plant’s proximity to Northumberland’s Kielder Forest and sawmills made it ideally situated to obtain the roundwood, hackchips and sawdust used in the manufacturing process.

Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment have since helped make EGGER Hexham one of Europe’s most technologically-advanced chipboard production sites. In 1998 a second factory – EGGER Barony – was built near Auchinleck, Ayrshire, to help meet rising demand for its products.

But now and into the foreseeable future, this chipboard empire needs a consistent supply of suitable wood fibre to feed its production lines, and the brutal truth is that the UK has seriously dropped the ball in terms of tree planting. After a glut of planting last century driven by tax incentives, commercial forestry fell out of fashion, and a serious dip in domestic wood supply is now on the horizon.

“The reason we want to see more forestry established is simple – we’ve two factories in the UK, 17 in total across Europe, and we need 1.2million tonnes of UK wood fibre annually, both virgin and recycled, to keep them running,” said John. “We are now going through all the stuff that was planted in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and the lack of planting in the subsequent decades is going to create a big trough in supply.”

But he is clear that EGGER is not interested in becoming the owner of its own forestry estate. Landownership is just not its business. What it wants is to secure supplies of the right kind of wood by establishing long term relationships with farmers and landowners. So whether you have an existing area of forestry that you want to capitalise on, or areas of land that might suit commercial tree planting, EGGER wants to hear from you now.

Simon Hart heads up EGGER Forestry Management, an arms-length company offering a complete forestry management service to farmers and landowners, where the ethos is to get the landowner the best return for their wood – even if that means sending some of it to uses other than the parent group’s factories. For example, wood that could yield more cut as actual timber will always be sent to the sawmill, and EGGER will then be happy to work with the percentage of chips, offcuts and sawdust left over.

“Right now, we are interested in expanding our catchment area,” said Simon. “The company’s ambition is to get 90% of its wood fibre supply within 150km of all its European sites, but from here in Hexham, that takes us well into Scotland.”

Compared to the moribund English forestry sector, north of the border is currently the promised land, with a supportive government putting in place policies and structures designed to meet ambitious tree-planting targets.

“There’s been positive change in Scotland,” he said. “The story in England is completely different – there is a big imbalance coming between supply and demand. Planting here stopped a decade earlier than in Scotland, and its just never recovered.

“EGGER has to look forwards, as with all we have built here, we simply have to maintain our supply of raw material. We have been making noise about the coming supply shortfall for a while – but possibly, we should have started making that noise sooner,” he adds, ruefully.

Simon concedes that when he is encouraging people to plant trees, they often express worries about the demand and the price in 30 years time: “We can only achieve this if people trust us. But I still don’t think many farmers really understand the future value of timber.”

But EGGER’s not-so-secret weapon to win those suppliers’ long term trust is the Hexham factory itself.

When the company invited The Scottish Farmer to come visit the plant, I was myself a bit mystified with what it hoped to achieve by showing an agricultural journalist how chipboard is made. Having taken the tour of the factory – a 75 acre site, 41% of it undercover, producing hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of chipboard a year with around 130 lorry loads of raw material arriving daily – I now fully appreciate that, impressive though the manufacturing process and high quality results are, the real message was about the solidity of EGGER itself – if one had to bet on a which buyer will still be around in 2047 to make good on a 30-year deal, bet on the one with a state-of-the-art factory the size of a major airport, selling a product that everyone needs.

Wood is paid for by the bone dry tonne, so the first port of call for drivers arriving on site is the weighbridge, where a sample of wet wood is obtained from each load.

These samples are weighed, then placed in an oven and dried, then weighed again, allowing a precise dryweight and value to be assigned to each load. The lack of ambiguity here is a strong incentive for suppliers not to waste fuel by hauling wet wood to Hexham.

Thereafter, the dried wood is reduced, by a variety of fearsome bladed machines, into the various grades of size required to form both the strong core and smooth exterior of a chipboard sheet, then treated with a mix of chemicals that will help it bond under pressure.

At one end of a building that seemed to stretch for several hundred yards, a vast progressive conveyor belt sets off bearing a loose layer cake of fine sawdust, core chips, and sawdust again, which goes through progressively hotter and heavier rollers, all electronically calibrated to the last millimetre, until the finished and trimmed board rolls off the other end, dispensed into a huge rotary cooler that separates the sheets and allows air to circulate around them for all the world like an oversized 1980s filofax.

Board destined for kitchen and furniture manufacture then progresses to the finishing building, where cunning use of layered printed laminates, precisely matched to die cutting presses, imparts grain finishes that are very difficult to tell apart from the real thing: “We are wood alchemists,” jokes John, “turning spruce into finest oak.”

Both he and Simon are well aware that many farmers have an aversion to dedicating land that might produce food to a long-term non-food crop like trees, but make the point that there’s precious little nutritional value in distilled spirits, without anyone raising an eyebrow at the land dedicated to serving that industrial process.

“This is a real market – and we’ve been in it for a long time, retaining and growing our share,” stressed John. “A farmer’s basic business is producing raw materials from the land. With all the uncertainty over future levels of support, and volatile returns from the food market, putting some land into forestry is a sound business move. The lesson from elsewhere in Europe is that it can work in harmony with food production. It isn’t an ‘either/or’ choice.”

As I’m leaving, I remark jealously on all the hefty wood processing equipment at work at EGGER Hexham, and recall my own laborious firewood-making weekends weeding out windblown trees from our own over-mature shelter belt. Quick as a flash, John runs out the meeting room and returns with a bagful of little saplings.

“There’s some replacements for you. Get them planted.”