A conference on agroforestry has highlighted the need for a cultural and behavioural change in the role of trees on farms. The International Agroforestry Conference, held at the Westlodge Hotel in Bantry, Co. Cork, attracted around 200 attendees on its first day, Thursday, November 16. Agroforestry, which is part of the government’s Afforestation Scheme, involves integrating trees with crops or livestock on the same land. This system allows landowners to graze and cut silage and hay while also growing trees for timber in the same field.
Under the new Forestry Programme, farmers can now avail of enhanced tax-free agroforestry payments of €8,555 per hectare for silvopasture systems, which combine trees and grass. The higher premium rate of €975 per hectare will now be paid to farmers for 10 years, instead of the previous five years. To be eligible for payment, a minimum of 400 trees per hectare must be planted. Land classified as agroforestry is also eligible for payments under the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS) and the Agri-Climate Rural Environmental Scheme (ACRES), along with the Basic Income for Sustainability Support (BISS) and the Eco-Scheme. The Department of Agriculture is also running pilot schemes for silvoarable systems (trees and crops) and forest gardening, which offer grant aid of €6,000 and premiums of €829 per hectare.
Jim McAdam, Director of the Irish Agroforestry Forum and an early pioneer of agroforestry in Northern Ireland, presented a case study at the conference. He stated that agroforestry can increase climate resilience in farming and forestry systems. In addition to sequestering more carbon than grassland alone, agroforestry can contribute to carbon-neutral livestock systems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve soil health, enhance biodiversity, provide flooding mitigation, and protect water quality. McAdam highlighted that trees increase the permeability of water through the soil, preventing flash floods and holding moisture in dry conditions. He emphasized the importance of integrating the benefits of trees into farms without significantly diminishing productivity.
McAdam believes that agroforestry has the potential to bridge the gap between agriculture and forestry while addressing climate issues. However, he stressed the need for wider acceptance of the role of trees on farms. “Agroforestry we do now feel has come of age to be a viable option that farmers can build, not convert their whole farms in any way, but put some agroforestry onto their farms to help address some of these challenges that we’re facing,” he said. The conference highlighted the following benefits of agroforestry for farmers: renewable energy/biofuel, improved animal welfare, potential for high-quality timber production, sustainable food production with lower inputs, improved biodiversity, water protection, and enhanced landscapes and working environments. The two-day conference, the first of its kind in Ireland, will continue with delegates visiting local farms to see agroforestry systems.