Speaking at the National Organic Training Skillnet’s agroforestry conference recently, Eugene Curran from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) gave an overview of Ireland’s agri-forestry scheme, which was launched in 2015 and has now been adopted by over 60 Irish farms on a range of soil types and farming systems.

The key difference between agroforestry and regular afforestation is that landowners are allowed to graze animals and harvest fodder under this option. The premium lasts just five years compared to 15 for regular forestry schemes. Like all afforestation options, putting land into agroforestry has no impact on single farm payments.

What is agroforestry?

In its most simple form, agroforestry is the integration of trees into farming systems.

It has a broad range of applications and is relevant to all types of agriculture practiced here in Ireland, including sheep, cattle, dairy, tillage and horticulture.

There is a huge variety of ways it can be implemented, from wide or thin rows, groves, contour plantings, traditional woodland plots, shelterbelts, riparian strips and much more.

Why incorporate agroforestry into a farm system?

Water and nutrient cycling, a microclimate benefit and the use of three-dimensional growing surfaces were outlined as some of the benefits of agroforestry at the conference.

For livestock, an extension of the grazing season was seen as a major benefit, due to drier conditions underfoot. A figure of 15 extra weeks outdoors was mentioned by a number of speakers. This, of course, can help to reduce feed costs and ammonia emissions.

Another positive is that agroforestry can provide shelter for grazing animals. Colder temperatures can increase feed requirement, while warmer temperatures can reduce feed intake, so shelter is important for animals.

The conference also heard about the mineral contribution from trees. Important minerals such as copper and zinc are abundant in many tree foliages, as well as high protein levels.

Gavin Lynch, a Wicklow farmer, mentioned the huge untapped potential for integrating trees into poultry systems.

The long-running Pontren Project in Wales showed it could be very beneficial for on and off-farm water management, including flood mitigation. One study found integrating trees into catchments resulted in a 67 fold increase in soil water infiltration.

Concerns

Concerns about the impact on farm output were discussed. In grass-based systems, root competition, especially in times of water scarcity, needs to be considered. The long-running Loughall site in Armagh saw livestock output under agroforest sustained for the first 12 years and then fall away. It crept back up after tree thinning a few years later.

In horticulture systems, tree roots and shade can impact vegetable growth. This can be managed through foliage and root pruning.

There was a discussion about how the focus on Irish agroforestry has thus far been timber production, and that while this was legitimate and a potentially lucrative revenue stream, it represented just one aspect of agroforestry potential.

Carbon neutral farming

Ian Short from Teagasc presented preliminary evidence which suggested agroforestry could provide a roadmap to carbon neutral drystock farm systems.

Funding and implementation

Eugene Curran from DAFM commented that a lot of people are "beginning to get it [agroforestry]."

He felt optimistic that the new CAP will be favourable to agroforestry rollout and agreed with agroforest pioneer Jim McAdam that given the broad environmental and societal benefits which could be realised by widespread farmer uptake, there could be scope to fund it from outside traditional farming or forestry budgets.

Minister of State Pippa Hackett emphasised her desire to remove barriers standing in the way of the widespread adoption of agroforestry systems.

Hedgerows

Imogen Rabone from Trees on the Land suggested our hedgerow system is the original agroforestry and speculated it to be a good entry point for discussions on incorporating more trees into Irish farms.

In her experience, there is an appetite among Irish farmers to plant trees, but they were stuck between complicated afforestation schemes and garden centres, on where to get hold of trees.

Although many contributors to the conference felt agroforestry could stand on its own two feet as a farm investment, there was also a collective sense that the cost and duration of establishment warranted state financial support.

The conference closed with the launch of the Irish Agroforest Forum. Its aim is to act as a coordinated voice, to educate and train, to advise on policy and to disseminate research related to agroforestry.