Podcast Ep 181: Innovation and the role farmers play in climate action was a key theme of this year’s Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co Laois.
This year’s National Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska County Laois may have been wetter than last year with fields resembling a sodden battlefield, but the celebratory mood and feeling of a great day out was felt by all.
The Ploughing Championships have been taking place every year – except during the pandemic – in Ireland since 1931 when two lifelong friends – Denis Allen of Gorey, Wexford, and JJ Bergin of Athy, Kildare, argued that their respective counties have the best ploughmen.
“It’s great talking about sustainability. But it needs to be understood that the livelihoods of our family farms cannot be put at risk”
The weather conditions this year certainly would have challenged the best of ploughmen.
We spoke to a range of people at the ploughing, including agri start-up innovators and farmers themselves.
Farms lead the charge on climate action
First we spoke to Bank of Ireland’s head of Agri Eoin Lowry about the current climate facing farmers and the conditions they face as more is required of them to deliver on climate action.
Lowry said that 2023 has been a tough year for farms. “They’ve had a couple of good years but the one thing that’s on their minds in the main is they are concerned about the drop in milk and grain prices in the last couple of months. At the same time costs have stayed up. So cashflow is a big concern this year.”
Bank of Ireland supports more than 82,000 farms and more than 55% of all new lending to farmers across Ireland comes via the bank. More than €1bn has been loaned to farmers across the country by Bank of Ireland.
“We have the supports available. If its additional facilities such as an overdraft or a stocking loan, our advice to farmers is to come talk to us early and seek the advice they need. Now’s the time to have those conversations.”
Another key theme Lowry is seeing this year is an appetite for buying land. “A lot of farmers are still looking to expand their farms or get access to greater land bases, particularly in light of the environmental restrictions that are coming down the track. This is not only driven by dairy farmers, but also farmers in tillage who are looking to buy fields.”
Everywhere you went at Ploughing 2023, sustainability was the major theme. Lowry said that farmers are well aware themselves of the importance of sustainability. “At the end of the day the majority of farmers inherited their land from the generation before and they want to pass it on to the next generation. So they inherently have it ingrained in them to protect their farm and their asset. And that’s what sustainability is really and truly about.”
We spoke to Irish Farmers Association (IFA) presidential candidate Francis Gorman about the challenges facing farmers as they embrace sustainability.
Gorman said that it is important to watch the impact of regulation on farm incomes. “If you look at derogation, the stocking rate has been reduced from 250 to 220 and that does affect a lot of smaller to medium-sized dairy farms. That will be a huge concern.”
He echoed Lowry’s sentiment that farmers themselves know the importance of sustainability. “Farmers were always up for the challenge, no matter what they were asked to do. And to be fair, the best farmers always took the best advice from Teagasc or whomever down through the years. Up until recently the mantra was keep driving on in stock numbers, keep driving on in cow numbers. And farmers had done that. Then the sustainability side of it came in and a lot of measures have been applied in terms of emissions, slurry spreading, greater use of clover, reduced fertiliser usage, buffer zones, better breeding practices.
“Farmers have been adopting them across the board at different levels over the last three or four years. And the one thing we were looking for on this issue was time, because it takes time for them to be delivered. The crude implement of reducing stock numbers may well see an improvement in water quality. But the Teagasc science today says that if we reduce the derogation figure from 250 down to 220 there will be no discernible improvement in water quality, it will not deliver. If there is an improvement in water quality it’s more likely to come from the measures that farmers have adopted over the course of the last three or four years.
“It’s great talking about sustainability. But it needs to be understood that the livelihoods of our family farms cannot be put at risk. Because at the end of the day we are producing our food more sustainably than most places in the world. And if it’s not produced here, it will be produced somewhere else and will do greater damage to the planet,” Gorman said.
We also took time to speak to a number of innovators who are helping farmers to improve everything from soil quality to using AI and video analysis to care for animals:
- Embracing sustainability is a detailed and complex task. We spoke to serial agri entrepreneur Liam Wolfe from Grassland Agro about the innovation and science behind enabling sustainable farming.
- The technology driving change on Irish farms now includes everything from AI to drones. We spoke to a number of entrepreneurs bringing digital technology to the farm, including Paul Kennedy of Proveye and Claire Lewis from Pondus, the Virtual Poultry Assistant.
- Deirdre Wall from Tralee business Brandon Bioscience showed how marine biotechnology is leading to better soil quality for Irish farmers.
- And finally we spoke to Phil Gleeson, a farmer from Templemore who summed up the grit and determination of Irish farmers as more is expected of them to embrace sustainability and deliver results