Farmers making positive change

West Cork hosted an international conference on agroforestry in Bantry in mid-November. The Irish Agroforestry Forum hosted the event titled ‘Farmer-led Climate Adaptation and Mitigation. Why and how trees on farms can help’ and attendees heard that farmers have committed to planting over 400,000 trees under the ACRES tree planting measure. Updating the conference on the farmer interest in ACRES measures involving trees, Eugene Curran from DAFM said there was great uptake, with 3,200 farmers choosing to plant 409,800 trees in the tree-planting measure. 2,053,789 metres of new hedgerows are to be planted, 100,387 trees will be planted in riparian buffer zones and 121 applicants committed to planting 36.7ha as a tree belt for ammonia capture. A further 1,546 applicants chose to plant a traditional orchard (10 trees).

He also gave a briefing on the progress and lessons learned from the initial agroforestry scheme. Introduced in 2015 with a target of having 200ha of newly-created agroforestry by 2020, it received 106 applications with a potential 260ha between them. To date, over 50ha has been planted and 23 farmers are in receipt of payment.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, agroforestry is a collective name for land-use practices where trees are combined with crops and/or animals on the same unit of land. Its most common forms are silvopastoral systems mixing trees and grass or silvoarable systems where trees and crops are grown side by side.

The lessons learned from the early adapters of the scheme, a number of whom are West Cork based, could be divided into financial and practical. Establishment grants weren’t sufficient enough to cover costs and the premium duration wasn’t long enough to attract people in. In response to this the new agroforestry scheme FT8, has seen the grant rate for establishing agroforestry increasing from €5,620ha to €8,555 and the annual premium rising from €645/ha to €975 and duration of the payments have doubled from five to ten years.

The conference also heard that while Ireland has the lowest forest cover in the EU, when it comes to overall tree crown cover it has the fourth highest. Gerry Lawson of European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF) said they had developed an index which they called the Zero Tree Index and ranked the countries depending on their level of tree cover.  Advances in satellite imagery meant the tree crown cover of countries outside of forests and urban areas could be measured more accurately. Portugal ranked highest in the index at 48 per cent, while Romania at 82.5 per cent had the least amount of land under tree. Thanks to a large number of trees and hedgerows outside of forest the figure for Ireland stood at 59.1 per cent.

“We came up with an index looking at measuring all different sorts of agricultural land use and, on that we superimposed another data set, which shows the percentage tree crown cover. So, you can now look at the tree crown cover on agricultural land outside the forest and urban areas. It’s quite a useful index because having a huge forest cover isn’t everything. You need trees outside the forest to provide all the environmental benefits and landscape diversity they provide.”

One of the standout speakers at the event was Jack Nolan, Senior Inspector and Head of the Organics Division in the Department of Agriculture, Food. He was presenting on organics, but before he got to that, he spoke of what is expected of farmers by society in general. They get praise at times but in the climate debate they are often scapegoated and he mentioned something that I often think about. Is farming expected to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of emissions so others within society can continue as they are?

Ok, given my occupation I might be biased in saying that, but I’m confident that when it comes to reaching the sectoral targets for reducing emissions, agriculture will be the sector that, if it doesn’t reach the set target, will be sector to come closest to doing so.

A combination of politics and economics will see that happen but a lot of work has been done to date also. The CSO recently released figures that show that in 2022 total fertiliser sales decreased by 18 per cent to 1.4 million tonnes. Nitrogen content was down 14 per cent at 343,193 tonnes, and phosphorus content fell by 26 per cent to 34,240 tonnes. Lime sales increased to 1.4 million tonnes, which is the highest in that period.

The figures were released for the period 2000-2022 and fertiliser sales were at their highest of the time period in 2000 at 1.7 million tonnes. They were at their lowest in 2009 at 1.2 million tonnes before reaching 1.7 million tonnes again in 2018 and in 2021. This was followed by an 18 per cent decrease to 1.4 million tonnes in 2022.

Eighteen per cent is a big drop in one of the areas within farming that is one of the bigger sources of emissions. Sometimes farmers get so caught up in projecting the image that we don’t like change, that we don’t notice that things have changed.

Change starts with us

Minister Pippa Hackett, Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine chats farming and politics with Tommy Moyles

Many of our readers may not know that you’re a farmer. Could you tell us a little about your home farm?

Myself and my husband Mark run a beef and sheep farm near Geashill, Tullamore in County Offaly. We have farmed organically for the last ten years, and we are delighted with how it has gone for us over that time. We have four children who enjoy helping around the farm when time allows. We also keep some horses and hens.

How did you get into politics?

Somewhat by chance! During the 2016 general election I came across the Green Party manifesto and liked what I read. It aligned with many of my own views and beliefs and aspired to a future I could identify with. So, I joined the Party and became active, and was appointed the Spokesperson on Agriculture later that year. The Green Party and agriculture are often seen as incompatible, but I have used my time in the role as Spokesperson, and now Minister, to show that this is not the case. I see myself as supporting farmers who want to change, who want to do things differently, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit and meet with many fantastic farmers across the country who are doing just that. We are acutely aware of the challenges the farming sector faces, and the need for Government to help farmers to become resilient into the future. I’ve worked hard to bring forward supports and schemes to secure farming for the next generation.

Have you any advice for those considering entering politics?

My advice is very simple – get involved and get active. Speak up for what you believe in, build allegiances and see if you can effect change.  It is never too early or too late. Four years after I got involved, I was appointed a government minister and now I am in a position to not only influence, but to change and direct government policy. If you believe strongly in something and want to see action – there is no better person than yourself to bring about change.

What has been the highlight of your time in office so far?

The highlight for me has been playing a role in putting together the Programme for Government in 2020 which contained many core Green Party policies, not just in agriculture, but across the board; and seeing so many of those commitments come to pass in policy, and funding announcements over the last three years. Of course, there is still a lot more work to be done to complete the Programme for Government, and we are aware that the work must continue that work to bring about the change we aspire to.

What has been the biggest challenge while in office?

I often think perfection can be the enemy of the good in trying to bring about change. Sometimes it has been hard to bring everybody onboard in implementing some changes or achieving progress, as for some, unless the policy is perfect – it is wrong. However, I hope we have become better at explaining why politics, and being in coalition Government is the art of the compromise, and as the saying goes “Done is better than perfect”. 

What is being done to deliver a market premium for organic produce?

The organic market in Europe and in Ireland has been growing over the past number of decades, and continues to grow. So, we have been working incredibly hard to create larger domestic and international markets for our organic produce. Before I took on this role – Ireland had never undertaken an organic trade mission before. We have now completed three, and we will continue to increase our presence at organic trade shoes across Europe. 

The domestic market is also important, and your readers may have heard adverts on the radio and podcasts recently urging consumers to purchase more organic food. I have been working hard on securing new markets and broadening the appeal of organic food domestically. 

The Government will also play its part and I have worked with my colleague Minister Ossian Smyth who is responsible for public procurement to put in a requirement for 10 per cent organic produce into all public contracts for food from next year.

You spoke recently at the Irish Agroforestry Forum conference in Bantry: Is agroforestry something for all farmers to consider?

The benefits of Agroforestry are many and varied. I see Agroforestry playing an important role in improving the farming enterprise and in integrating trees more closely to traditional farming systems. It can play a hugely significant role in addressing many the challenges we face in agriculture and indeed in the wider environment, be it climate change, biodiversity, air quality or water quality. We have a budget of €1.3 billion behind the new Forestry Programme and under that new Programme we are paying farmers who wish to do agroforestry an attractive, tax-free annual premium for ten years, as well as covering the cost of planting the trees. Farmers retain their BISS payments on all forestry, and agroforestry is also eligible for organic payments too, something I worked on to deliver. It is worth noting that agroforestry is also an option available under the new reconstitution scheme for ash dieback.

Tommy Moyles

Tommy Moyles runs a suckler to beef herd at Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co Cork.

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