Agriculture can be the solution, not the problem it is generally seen as


There is a major fight between Irish farmers and the government. As the climate crisis engulfs the planet, the government must reduce carbon emissions from all sectors, and agriculture is an important one.

Many farmers feel they are being unfairly targeted. The fight seems inevitable and intractable, with big industry and lobbyists all vying for power.

Understanding the undeniable fact that something has to give, you would be forgiven for thinking that all farmers are stressed and fighting for their livelihoods, but you would be wrong.

Today, there are farmers in Ireland peacefully going about their daily lives of managing the land and feeding the people, while having fun while they’re at it.

They’re not emitting greenhouse gases at a rate that will destroy our environment, so they don’t have to worry about meeting the targets that are being disputed this week in Dublin.

In fact, their farms capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the earth.

These farms don’t make the headlines and, curious to know why, I spent the day on one.

‘Hazel and Davi’s Wicklow Farm’ is run by Hazel Nairn and Davi Leon on part of the Nairn family’s 20 acre farm and woodland in Ashford, Co Wicklow.

Their goal is to regenerate the landscape through agriculture and they produce vegetable baskets as part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Syntropic agroforestry system

In early 2020 they planted Ireland’s first syntropic agroforestry system; a forest of apple, plum, hazelnut and walnut trees.

Syntropic agroforestry is a farming system that works with nature; syntropy means the accumulation of energy and life, and agroforestry means the cultivation of trees and shrubs among all that you grow, be it animals or crops or both.

At Wicklow Farm, they are pioneering trials of commercial syntropic agroforestry systems that will work with Ireland’s temperate climate and landscape. From what I’ve seen, it’s going great.

I saw the trees, already bearing fruit but not ready to harvest. All around them grew various fruits and vegetables, including radishes, carrots, spinach, kale, onions, potatoes, beans, strawberries, raspberries, currants, and rhubarb.

Hazel and Davi had also planted “service species,” including alders, poplars and willows, as well as shrubs called Tree Lupins.

These species provide cover and, when trimmed and pruned, produce potent biomass to add to the soil.

It keeps the fertility cycle going and indeed the abundance of berries, fruits and vegetables amongst the leafy trees on a July day was astounding.

I grew up in rural Cork and generations of my family have grown beef, dairy and potatoes.

Trees are already fruiting but not ready to harvest on Hazel Nairn and Davi Leon’s farm.

Hazel and Davi’s Wicklow farm is unlike what I’m used to – there’s no slurry tank, no tons of fertilizer in huge plastic bags, no massive, expensive machinery.

While the fields were arranged in neat rows, instead of a single crop of uniform height, the fields looked more like densely populated orchards.

Syntropic agroforestry is new to Ireland, but an ancient practice developed by early farmers in the Amazon.

Natives grew their food in a clearing, sowing their annuals and future tree crops together.

This dynamic – a diverse landscape with many layers of plants that take turns harvesting sunlight – inspired the system that thrives today.

Farmers love this system because within a few years it is possible to create a closed loop of productivity, without needing to add anything from the outside.

Ernst Götsch is a Swiss farmer who moved to Bahia, Brazil in the early 1980s and developed syntropic agroforestry there on 400 hectares of land.

Götsch restored the composition of a very acidic soil (initially with a pH of 3) to one of the most productive cocoa plantations in the country.

Farming without chemicals

His farm is one of the most biodiverse stretches of the Atlantic Forest, and he did it without using chemicals like fertilizers or pesticides.

He is recognized as a leader in the field (sorry!) by the scientists, researchers and farmers who have studied and implemented his techniques.

Syntropic farming systems can produce about 60-80 tons of food per hectare.

Now, unsurprisingly, these would be heavily managed systems, but isn’t that fantastic?

Not only could they achieve such high levels of food production, but they would do so while preserving biodiversity and sequestering carbon.

In dark times for many farmers, with growing pressure from all sides, syntropic agroforestry is a beacon of hope that offers potential paradigm shift.

Researchers from the International Institute for Sustainability report: “Overall, it is widely recognized that agroforestry systems increase resource use efficiency, contribute to biodiversity conservation and improve the provision of ecosystem services. .

Agroforestry is also recognized as an alternative to improve food security and nutrition, as it increases agrobiodiversity and food production, contributing to poverty reduction and improving human well-being.

That last part, on human well-being, is huge.

As beef and dairy producers argue with the government over emissions, it’s essential to remember that traditional farming is hard, often unpredictable and lonely work.

Dr David Christian Rose is an expert in mental health and wellbeing in agriculture who works at the University of Reading.

In May this year, he spoke at a conference organized by Teagasc, The Agriculture and Food Development Authority, noting:

“Farmers face a unique set of acute and chronic stressors, including agricultural bureaucracy, climatic conditions, animal and plant disease outbreaks, time constraints, workplace hazards, rural crime , finances, isolation, machinery breakdowns and media criticism.”

It is equally essential to remember that agriculture does not need to stay that way.

A just transition from carbon-intensive agriculture to new systems is essential for the environment and also for farmers.

Community Supported Agriculture

Here, too, is where community supported agriculture and syntropic agroforestry shines because it’s not something you can do on your own.

The typical pattern of a lone farmer in a tractor for hours is not in play at Hazel and Davi’s farm.

The farm is lively and sociable, with neighbors volunteering to help plant woods and people coming to get food and see how the trees are progressing.

Having a more abundant landscape will depend on the participation of more people and will not leave it to a tiny percentage of the population to manage most of the land.

When I visited, Davi and Hazel were running a week-long workshop on syntropic agroforestry with Brazilian farmer and consultant Felipe Amato.

There were about 15 people from all over Ireland, learning the principles of the system and practicing it too, planting new rows of plum, apple and pear trees alongside strawberries, potatoes, kale and all support species.

The workshop was partly funded by National Organic Training Skillnet, and participants wanted to implement the system on their own land, whether it was a garden in Cabra or a farm in Cavan.

As the fight against emissions continues, keep in mind that farming isn’t the problem when done right.

And when farming is done really well? This may be the solution.


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