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'It's hard to imagine the future': The Ploughing, the climate crisis, and the writing on the wall

Climate and sustainability took on a new focus at the Ploughing this year, but there’s still a long way to go.

“SUSTAINABILITY IS VERY, very important,” says Anna May McHugh, Managing Director of the National Ploughing Association.

“It’s extremely important… It should be on the top of everyone’s agenda.”

The National Ploughing Championships, a staple event in rural Ireland’s calendar, returned with a bang this week for the first time since before the pandemic. The event was cancelled in 2020 and dramatically scaled back to basics in 2021 with only the ploughing contest itself and none of the usual exhibitions, trade stands and fanfare.

As tractors, hurls and hiking poles finally descended back on Ratheniska, Co Laois, something was in the air with a strength that participants said wasn’t there in previous years: the climate crisis and what it means for the agriculture sector.

When the government set targets this summer for how far each sector in Ireland must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, much was made of the target for agriculture.

Tension surfaced between farmers who argued that a too-high target could compromise their livelihoods and climate scientists and activists who pointed out that failing to reduce emissions at a sectoral, national and international level puts lives at risk.

The future of farming amid the climate crisis materialised at the Ploughing Championships in a myriad of ways, from questions to politicians about how they intend to support farmers and trade stands with a focus on sustainable agriculture to interest in some stakeholders in getting emissions – and resentment among others.

In some minds, it remains a concept that feels distant to daily life, but for many, it has become increasingly clear that it is not something that can be ignored.

As the three days of the Championships played out, a picture grew of farmers’ feelings towards climate action – quite literally, in the case of one project at the event.

A couple of rows down from the National Ploughing Association’s centre and the Government’s marquee, a white wall more than 30 metres long was dedicated to depicting farmers’ ideas about how to make the industry more sustainable.

“How can we farm in a more sustainable way?” the project by Creative Ireland, a Government-funded programme to encourage creativity, asked farmers. Collecting their views was Lisa Fingleton, a farmer and an artist, who gradually brought the wall to life with their ideas.

IMG-42301 Artist and farmer Lisa Fingleton with drawings showing farmers' ideas about sustainability Lauren Boland / The Journal Lauren Boland / The Journal / The Journal

“It’s really surprising the amount of farmers who want to engage and want to share their ideas and opinions. Even intergenerationally, we’ve had farmers and their children, so that’s been really good,” Fingleton told The Journal.

Overall, the response from farmers came with “some frustration, but generally it’s very positive”, she said.

“We’ve had people talking about generating energy – one farmer halved his dairy herd and put on solar panels, so it was really good for income but also for energy generation. There’s lots of concern about small farmers getting squeezed out, a big concern about that,” she explained.

“You have lots of people with their children and they want a farming future for their children and they’re really interested to see how they can do that.

“What’s nice about the art is people find it very hard to imagine the future and the future of climate change, so at least if we’re helping them to visualise a future, that’s positive.”

She said the project is “all about sparking the imagination, so this is working both ways”.

I’m asking farmers to spark my imagination and hopefully the wall will spark theirs.

And if the wall didn’t spark their imagination, perhaps some of the shiny research equipment at the Teagasc stand did.

A major source of emissions from the agriculture sector is methane, which is produced by livestock like cattle. Teagasc has been working on a project that measures the level of emissions coming from individual cows – all the cow has to do is stick her head into a machine for a bite to eat.

“When the cow puts her head in to nibble at the meal, the fan switches on and pulls air through,” a Teagasc official explained.

“As she’s nibbling at the meal, it’s picking up on the emissions out of her mouth and it’s getting analysed. Each cow will have a tag so you’ll know which one has fed, how long she fed for, and how much emissions.”

IMG-40451 Lauren Boland / The Journal Lauren Boland / The Journal / The Journal

In the short-term, the information will be used to look at links between types of feed and the level of emissions, while on a longer-term basis it may possibly be used to try to breed lower-emitting cattle.

Another piece of equipment is the Eddy covariance tower, which measures the concentration of gases such as carbon dioxide and conditions like wind speed and direction in a particular area. Over time, the measurements will show how different types of agricultural land use relate to different levels of gases and help to improve information about how much carbon is kept in soils.

“On our mineral soils, they’re measuring carbon dioxide. On our peat soils, they’re measuring methane and carbon dioxide,” the Teagasc official outlined.

“The reason we’re measuring this is we want to get an actual figure that goes into the national inventory. At the minute, the national inventory has .5 tonnes of carbon per hectare sequestered on mineral soils. That figure is presumed to actually be higher than that.”

Sequestered carbon means that the carbon is kept in the soil instead of being emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Different types of soils hold and release carbon to different extents and it’s a process affected by human influence on the land.

“On our peat soils, our peat soils emit an awful lot more, orders of magnitude more. That’s why the industrial extraction of peat was stopped and now we’re looking at mitigation strategies for farmers that are on peat and how they can hold the carbon that’s already in their soil and not lose it.”

IMG-40421 Lauren Boland / The Journal Lauren Boland / The Journal / The Journal

An older version of the machine using an earlier type of the underlying technology has been located in Johnstown in Co Meath for more than two decades but the plan with the new machines is to roll out a couple of dozen across the country to learn more about the land.

“Carbon is essential for soils for fertility, it’s essential for water-holding capacity, it’s essential for structure, so the more carbon farmers can keep in their soil, the better it’s going to be for farmers in the long run.”

The challenge for the agriculture sector is to try to reduce emissions even while some advanced technologies are not yet widely available, given that the urgency of the climate crisis means that waiting – in any sector – would have disastrous consequences.

Both the sector and Opposition TDs will be watching the government for what kind of action it takes to help farmers in the transition.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that the government isn’t doing enough to support farmers in lowering their emissions.

Speaking to reporters outside the party’s tent at the Ploughing, McDonald said that there is a “lot of innovation happening across agriculture, but I’m hearing from lots of sources that they’re not being supported or encouraged or incentivised in the way that they should be”.

“I think the reality is, in order to meet what are very ambitious targets, that the government has to partner with agriculture and with the farming community and the state will have to step up to the plate and lead and not rely simply on individual farming enterprises or even sectors to do all of the heavy lifting on their own,” she said.

“I sense from talking to people today and from our engagements with farming organisations that there is an understanding the change is happening and I think farmers want to be partners in that.

I think there is also a level of resentment that I’m picking up, that somehow they have been cast as the bad guys here. One person said to me today that they’re cast as villains.

“Our position is that farmers are the custodians of the land. We are an island, we have to have self-sufficiency in lots of things, we have to be able to feed ourselves. We have a product for export that is unmatched in terms of dairy, in terms of beef, and we need to protect that, but we do have to meet these targets and therein lies the quandary.” 

Similarly, Labour leader Ivana Bacik told The Journal that the government must take more action.

“I think there’s a really strong movement within agriculture and food production now to make it more sustainable,” Bacik said.

“I think they [the government] need to do more. What was impressive was seeing the local enterprise centres and how they’re bringing forward a lot of new agritech and food production businesses, but I think what we could see is a lot more direct grants to farmers and farm families to retrofit homes and farms and to start to move towards net-zero in their businesses.”

Members of Government parties who spoke to The Journal indicated that they took reassurance in positive signals from some farmers about climate action.

Climate was “much more relevant” at the Ploughing this year, said Fine Gael’s Martin Heydon, Minister of State for Farm Safety.

“Farmers have been on a journey for some time,” Heydon said.

“A lot of the discussions around the time of agreeing the final figure on the emissions was talking about what farmers will do in the future and in some ways, it missed the point that farmers have done a lot and are adopting new practices all the time.”

He said the Ploughing Championships were an opportunity for non-farming consumers to get a better understanding of developments that are already underway in the sector.

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher said that rural communities “are not immune to their obligations”.

“There will be significant challenges in rural communities, partly because of remoteness, cost of living, transportation, access to services, these are all big challenges for rural Ireland,” Kelleher said.

“On top of that, environmental obligations are coming on the track around the issue of sustainability in terms of agriculture, not just the farming sector alone but right through the entire food chain, through to processing and consumption,” he said.

There will be significant challenges but we have to also realise that with challenges come opportunities and what we need now is for the government to ensure that they’ve policies in place that underpin agriculture to be a sustainable industry in the years ahead, that allow family farms to continue to thrive.

“And then beyond that, that we start moving into the area of biomass, anaerobic digestion, energy sustainability, and food production sustainability. I think there’s opportunities in those areas if they’re underpinned with the right policies from government.”

With Budget 2023 due next week, the type of policies the Irish Famers’ Association has been calling for are capital allowances, a new rooftop solar scheme and anaerobic digestion support scheme.

Back at the wall, as sun rose and set on each day of the Ploughing, more and more ideas put forward by farmers and their families took shape – solar power, biofuels, community-owned energy, rewilding, protecting bees, planting native trees, supporting local food, and many more.

And hanging over them was the question that perhaps was in more people’s minds leaving than when they arrived, and which will only grow more pressing on the political agenda: “How can we farm in a sustainable way?”

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