As I sit to write this on Valentines Day 2014, there is another "day of the big wind" blowing outside. As it happens I have also been doing an excellent online course on "Climate Change" run by The University of Exeter. These and other paths have led me to sit and write this piece.
In my previous life as a science teacher, each year I loved to open young minds to the wonderful Carbon Cycle. In my own school days, I learned that the atmosphere was 0.033% CO2. By the time I finished teaching, that figure was 0.04%. Tiny amounts you might say, but look at the increase! It has gone up by one third. It is over over three million years since levels were last as high as this. There is now over 30% more carbon atoms in the air than when most farmers were born, this is fact! We have released them from the coal mines gas and oil wells where they have been locked up since the dinosaurs left. Every time we burn oil, gas or coal, we release them into the atmosphere where they affect the reflection of sunlight causing global temperatures to rise. Over a hundred years of collected data tracks parallel rises in CO2, Average Temperature and sea levels. This is scientific fact. Higher temperatures lead to melting glaciers, more water in the oceans and higher sea levels. This is undisputed.
Like thousands of farmers around the country, sea and river levels are important to me. When I look out from my house, I can see a line of sand dunes and the ocean beyond. I have taken those sand dunes for granted. It is calculated that if all the ice in the world melted, the seas would be 50m higher. My farm would be long gone as would Holland and many whole counties of Ireland. We hope that we can change our ways before then. However, it is a gradual process, it is on-going, and sea levels are rising and events such as the breaching of sand dunes can make for sudden local impacts sooner than we think.
I believe, as farmers, we should be concerned. We cannot idly do nothing as our lands and ways of living are threatened by sea rise. The rate at which Carbon atoms increase in the atmosphere directly affects how fast sea levels will rise. Farmers have a special interest and a special part to play in this process. With the right actions, sea rise can be slowed or even stopped.
My father said many wise things to me growing up, many of which it has taken me another lifetime to appreciate. One which I remember is when he told me of the privilege and pride he felt to be custodian of a piece of the earth's crust, our farm. We farmers have a very special job and as a group it is indeed a privilege to live on and be custodians for the land of Ireland and the world. However, with privilege comes responsibility. Which brings me back to the Carbon Cycle. The main way that Carbon atoms are taken out of the air and returned to be locked up in the ground again, is by the growth of plants. This puts our role as farmers in a pivotal and key position in the unfolding story.
So what can we do? Firstly, we can simply grow more plants on our farms. You may say "my farm is full of good grass so I am growing as much plants as I can". Yes, you are using the horizontal ground surface well, but you are not using the potential vertical surface. Specially if you have removed all your hedgerows. The process of absorbing carbon goes on in leaves. Trees and woody plants carry leaves at higher levels.Therefore having as many trees as possible throughout our grassland greatly increases the overall amount of carbon absorbed by our farms. Plus, trees live long lives, locking much of that carbon safely away in their wood. The close optimum integration of trees with crops is called Agroforestry - it increases both total farm production and carbon storage. It is a win win bet and must be more seriously considered by farmers and policy makers.
Secondly, tillage farmers can focus on preserving the Organic Matter in their soils. Organic Matter is a major earth store of Carbon atoms. The more Organic Matter we can retain in our soil, the less carbon atoms are in the air causing sea rise.
Having high soil organic matter increases both fertility, stability and workability of a soil. Its another win win bet. We know that crop rotation, crop residue incorporation, green manuring and min-till techniques can each build higher levels of organic matter and carbon in tilled soils.
Thirdly, we can stop burning our hedge cuttings.Much better to find a space where we can just let it rot. Much of the carbon will be retained in the good black organic material that will enrich that corner in the future.
Which brings me to the major problem. EU/ state policy and officialdom! The eyes in the sky now have 50/50 vision. They can see our pile of hedge cuttings in a corner and reduce our "eligible area", taking money from our families. If our hedges are too wide or If there are too many trees or woody plants on a field, they are called scrub rather than Agroforestry, and again we are penalised. But crazy policies are forcing us to slash and burn, burn, thus releasing all those carbon atoms to cause sea rise. Crazy! Lets change the rules.
Of course there are many other things we can do with our farms to reduce our carbon loss. Such things as, using our engines less frequently and using the smallest engine suitable for the job, getting an extra few years out of our machines, making electricity with solar panels on farm buildings or with wind turbines, home heating with wood, producing biomass crops etc. All small steps, but the sea rises in small steps also and they are directly related, Fact!
We need to start looking at our farms like a carbon bank. Maximising the amount of carbon we can fix and hold, reducing the amount of carbon lost, building a surplus and managing it prudently.
* William Considine farms his family's 40ha Nicharee Farm, near Duncormick, Co Wexford. The farm has been a mixed farm, a dairy farm, a pedigree beef farm but over the past decade the objective has been to use the forestry and AEOS schemes to optimise Carbon storage and environmental improvements around an organic suckled beef herd. He is also editor of the Farmers Journal AgSc study guides.