May 01 2020
An entrepreneur is enjoying success by helping to make houses, animal shavings and food pallets. Douglas Mathison, 31, of Agriforest recently had a visit from Gordon Davidson, of the Scottish Farmer to a site in Fife. The publication is a widely read weekly production, which Agriforest are regular advertisers in. It was a good opportunity to highlight what we do, and Gordon put it across in a humorous but yet informative way.
SUPERMODEL Naomi Campbell allegedly told prospective clients that she wouldn't get out of her bed for less than $10,000.
With untold riches available from Versace and Dior, Ms Campbell reckoned that it just wasn't worth her trouble to take on the smaller jobs. Amidst the forestry and timber boom now gripping the northern half of the UK, farmers with a few dozen hectares of woodland needing harvested might recognise a similar attitude from the sector's big operators: 'Twenty hectares? Darling, we don't oil the chainsaws for less than 10,000...'
It isn't that there's no value in small woodlands – there's plenty, if you take the time to sort the wheat from the chaff – but the larger harvesting operations aren't geared for selectivity. A plague of locusts takes more time to appreciate its dinner than a phalanx of shiny new Komatsus advancing hungrily across a hillside on behalf of one of the uber-wood processors.
Which is where Peebles-based firm Agriforest comes in. Its small staff, and select band of full-time contractors, all have plenty of large-scale forestry experience, but have opted to devote their skills to an independent operation which focuses on small to medium size properties, free from the scale imperatives of commercial plantation work – not the least benefit of which is time to properly communicate with their customers.
This is a good fit with the farming community – while some London-based Trust Fund or other won't really give a flying fir-cone how its distant forestry assets are turned into cash, so long as it's done quickly, farmers will most often have grown up alongside their shelter belts and woodlands, and want to get to know the people bringing heavy machinery onto their land to harvest them.
The man at the helm of Agriforest is Douglas Mathison, who I met midway through a harvesting operation at Richard Nelson's Cuttlehill Farm, near Dunfermline, which offered a good example of the company's business model. The six hectares of conifer had been put in by the old Coal Board as part of reinstatement work back in the 1980's, and were getting long in the tooth. The time had come to bring it all down and take it to market, and get some fresh young trees in place. But it wasn't a job that would appeal to the cut-em-fast and stack-em-high operators.
Douglas met me on the Cuttlehill steading, and we took his pick-up to where the work was ongoing. With forestry extraction, access is everything, and any site appraisal starts with the question of how to get in and get out safely, and what obstacles, natural or manmade, need navigated. Agriforest specialises in bringing 'challenging' sites to market, which means dealing with access difficulties, working round utilities such as power lines, and being ready for issues arising from high public access areas such as main roads, footpaths and golf courses.
The first obstacle I encountered was mud – this was a winter visit – and somehow, idiotically, I'd arrived without my wellies. I've been with The Scottish Farmer for thirty years – it isn't like I'm a stranger to mud. But once he'd stopped laughing, Doug and I got on swimmingly. The site reminded me strongly of my own folks' piece of land, which is hemmed on two sides by an old Ministry of Defence shelter belt, where I spend every spring risking life and limb chainsawing overgrown and windblown conifers for firewood. Thus it was a pleasure to see a similar stand of trees being dealt with so professionally.
Douglas explained that Agriforest's procedure differs from other contractors in that they take no upfront fees and, once work has commenced, do not charge by the hour. "It's a fresh approach to this end, as most consultants/forestry businesses charge a fee for everything from the felling permissions to site visits – we do not," said Douglas. Instead, the firm does everything on a margin basis, which makes it very much in its interest to maximise the value of each site's trees. Good relationship's with various sawmills ensure a ready outlet for the crop, which will be marked up during the advance survey for one of several possible uses, depending on size and quality. This varies from high value structural timber at the top end, down through fencing materials, to pallet use, firewood and, if needs must, chip for the biomass market.
"An average site usually starts with appraising the woodland to give the client an estimate of a financial return, then applying for felling permissions and/or management plans if requested. Then we implement a plan of work which fits round the farm or estate calendar," explained Douglas. "It's a one-stop shop for farmers or estates with small to medium scale woodlands. Agriforest will start and finish the clear felling or thinning operation, market the timber, arrange and manage all haulage operations, and then follow up with ground preparation and the subsequent restocking of the area.”
"Payment terms are always an early question farmers ask," he noted. "We pay for the timber we uplift either fortnightly or monthly. Contracts are always completed promptly to allow the financial return to be finalised and paid out to the owner without delay. Everything is done on an open book, transparent basis, from the ticket books which are on site for hauliers to fill in when lifting a load from the site, to the records kept by Agriforest which are subsequently shared back to the owner."
Onsite at Cuttlehill were Douglas's operations manager Dominik Raton, and at the stick of a Ponsse harvester was Michael Herdman, who obligingly worked away at the sunlit outside edge of the site so that I could get some photographs. I may someday tire of watching modern forestry harvesting equipment at work, but there's no sign of boredom creeping in yet. Agriforest could set up an onsite live-feed and I'd log on just to watch mature conifers snipped, tipped, stripped and stacked. Its the 21st century equivalent of taking satisfaction from neatly-stooked hay.
It was a job that needed doing at Cuttlehill, and Mr Nelson was happy to see the work in progress, and anticipate the substantial change in aspect that would come from replacing a 80 foot wall of dark green with a vibrant field of saplings. He also looked forward to the cheques arising from cashing in on the Coal Board's historic investment in a timber market that few would have foreseen in the 1980's.
"A key point that I always try to make when a landowner is considering felling something is that you wouldn't leave a crop of barley until it is old and flat in a field and worth next to nothing," said Douglas. "The same point applies to shelter belts and woodlands which are past their best. A lot of our work is undertaken once wind damage has taken hold and management is seen as a reactive solution, rather than a proactive one where the best value can be realised before wind damage or having an over mature woodland necessitates work being done."
He described Agriforest as being "a truly hands-on business" with a lot of its own kit, able to reliably complete work to tight deadlines, and the industry connections needed to promptly get the best price for each job's timber. Without over egging the point, Doug stressed that they were completely independent and did not use the timber harvested themselves, leaving them free to obtain the best return possible for the owner without being tied to particular end user.
"We have plans to expand, and buy more equipment, but we don't want to get so big that we lose the personal communication that farmers and landowners value," said Douglas. "We certainly hope that readers of The Scottish Farmer who have some forestry on their ground, but have been unsure how to go about making the most of it, will give us a call and we can have a chat, then perhaps pay a visit to see what we can do for them."