Forestry targets are doomed to failure if farmers' concerns are not addressed
Forestry and its role in carbon sequestration is an obvious part of any solution to the problem of emissions produced by agriculture.
This is especially true in Ireland where the Food Wise 2025 targets and our dairy boom has placed the farming sector and the Government in an almost Catch-22 position when it comes to expansion versus our EU environmental obligations.
At its simplest, the pro-forestry argument is that farmers should stop producing cattle at a loss and instead produce trees at a profit.
Everyone wins, so why isn't this happening?
Grants are available for planting, ongoing premia is available and the land is generally eligible for BPS drawdown. What more can be done to encourage an increase in planting?
However, farmers are voting with their feet on this one and analysis is required as to why plantings are reducing instead of where the economics would dictate they should head.
Before I continue, I know this is a tillage column and normally not the preserve of forestry opinions.
But to be honest I get a bit confused as to why forestry is always discussed at arm's length from agriculture.
Forestry is about getting a plant, sticking it in the ground, leaving it to grow (albeit for a long time) and eventually harvesting it for sale. And hopefully it will achieve a price that covers the total production costs.
It's not that dissimilar to barley production - it even involves shiny metal to harvest.
I think there are several blocks, mental and otherwise, preventing many farmers planting some or all of their land in forestry.
Some of these blocks are put there by regulation and are in the gift of the authorities to address.
The big impediment to heading down the forestry route is that land that is planted in forestry is permanently locked into trees.
Landowners do not like this idea at all.
They don't like the prospect of cutting off future options, they don't like the capital devaluation, they don't like handing over assets to future generations with impositions attached.
Forestry should be treated like a crop.
When it's harvested, there should be the option to take it out of forestry and revert to other enterprises if the landowner so wishes.
We are told the reason for certain restrictions is to maintain the total national area and rate of afforestation.
This 'what we have we hold' mentality is rife throughout our statute books.
But when there is a change in mindset, for example in our tax codes, changes to capital gains tax etc, the results are generally overwhelmingly positive.
Sometimes you have to release the grip to allow growth prosper.
Another impediment against planting is the 'look' of land that is planted, especially for the first few years after planting.
There are always areas that can't be planted, under power lines, around the edges of fields, at entrances, near houses.
Generally they are the more prominent areas of a land bank, places that 'can be seen from the road'.
Over time, these areas become very unkempt, eventually succumbing to yellow furze, scrub and look a general mess.
Seeing the land look so unkempt sticks in the craw of many farmers, but some small changes to the maintenance programmes would overcome this.
Another problem people have with forestry are the costs and returns from harvesting first and second thinnings.
Shiny metal costs money, and for small plantations, the bills can be grim.
Given that the first real money from a plantation the landowner sees after waiting 20-25 years are the first thinnings, it can come as quite a shock to see high harvesting costs eat up the returns.
Factor in the cost of a roadway, insurance and risk of the timber being stolen at the roadside and suddenly forestry can give spring barley a run for its money in the 'high turnover, no margin' and the 'what have I done' stakes.
The answer here I think is to step back a bit.
Harvesting forestry is a technical, dangerous task, but it can be done with chainsaws and small forwarding equipment, provided the operators are trained sufficiently.
Unfortunately, the training infrastructure isn't currently in place.
The solution should be a promotion of smaller harvesting crews and encouraging landowners to harvest their own crops.
This will take investment in training infrastructure, it's not a 'we'll have a go' kind of task.
Another block against forestry is that planting trees is perceived by many as landowners giving up on the land.
It doesn't necessarily have to be that way.
Land under forestry is like land under any crop, it has to be managed to be successful. Drains need cleaning, fences need repair, weeds need control and thinnings need to be removed.
With a bit of training and the right attitude, landowners can be very active in their management of the forestry. They can get easily as much satisfaction looking after a growing plantation as looking after a batch of loss making cattle.
Henry Ford advised us to 'chop your own wood, it will warm you twice'. I think he was wrong in that. The self-satisfaction that comes from sitting in front of a fire fuelled by wood that was grown on your own land and processed by your own hand will nearly warm you a third time.
Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Co Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA
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