My uncle had a great turn of phrase to describe someone whose knowledge of a subject was less comprehensive than they realised.

He used to say (in broadest Killinchy dialect), “If that craiter knowed a wee bit mair, he’d know how little he did know”.

I mention this astute observation as a fitting description of my own entry into the world of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon benchmarking.

I thought I possessed a firm grasp of this greenhouse gas business, until studying an email attachment containing a comprehensive report for this farm from the year 2020.

It quickly dawned on me that I hadn’t a clue how to translate all the figures into something that I could understand, and so one of the CAFRE advisers organised a Zoom meeting.

He did his best to decipher the data and translate it so that a slow-witted farmer might get the message. But his was an uphill task, because trying to explain something new to me is pretty much like showing a three-year-old how to read and write.

At the end of a two-hour session, he asked if I was clear, or if I had any questions.

The truthful answer would have been to ask him to repeat the entire conversation again, since I could only accurately recall small chunks of this information overload.

Instead, I told an enormous lie, and said everything was hunky dory. Therefore, the following explanation has been dredged up from memory, along with some hastily scribbled (illegible) notes, as well as small parts of the feedback report which I vaguely understood.

Carbon dioxide

It appears that the farm produced 674 tonnes (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2). However, I’m not even sure if that is strictly accurate, because when we use the CO2 terminology, perhaps we mean all the greenhouse gases, which are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Who knows?

I can’t quite remember what the man said. I think I do recall something, somewhere, about nitrous oxide being the biggest, naughtiest gas on the planet. But I’m not sure.

There may have been another figure of 642t mentioned, because my woodland sequestered/absorbed just over 30t.

I do remember that this figure does not include anything taken in by soils or hedges. A not terribly accurate stab in the dark is that my soils sequestered 165t of carbon (although I don’t know if anyone, anywhere, is completely sure about this), plus there was another 17t from hedgerows.

The adviser may (or may not – I can’t remember) have said that the hedgerow calculation is based on a thick, tall hedge, so the accuracy of this figure is open to debate.

I have some lovely hedges, and some right gappy ones too. So, if you steer your way through this entangled undergrowth of information (pun intended), the final figure for net GHG emissions on this farm is in the region of 460t. But don’t quote me on that one please.

Sheep emissions

I do remember one part of our conversation, and that concerned sheep emissions. I incorrectly thought that belching cows were the real problem, and sheep were entirely blameless.

But no, sheep are, pro rata, just as guilty as their bovine counterparts. At least I think that’s what he said.

Net zero

Of course, among all these screeds of figures, every farmer is asking the same question. How do I get to net zero?

Apparently, all I have to do is buy 50 acres of mature woodland. That figure should contain a smidgeon of accuracy, because I wrote it down in capital letters with large asterisk beside it. Or maybe it was 50 hectares?

Other recommendations that would help to lower my carbon footprint tend to involve agricultural efficiency. That includes concentrate reduction, sowing less artificial fertiliser, and encouraging clover swards.

For someone who can trace his soil testing results back 40 years, has been benchmarking for over a decade, and who regularly tries to establish more clover, I have the distinct feeling of being backed into a corner, with nowhere to turn.

But hold on! There is one other option open to me that hasn’t yet been tried here. It’s that panacea for all our ills – multispecies swards/herbal leys.

So far, a lot of excitement has been generated around this type of sward, and no one is daring to point out that it may not be the answer to all our environmental woes.

Sorry for being negative, but I think this whole carbon business has miles and miles to run, and we can only guess what our farms are going to look like in 10 or 20 years’ time.

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