The Irish Agroforestry forum was formed in 2021 and its primary aim was to promote agroforestry as a sustainable land-use option across the Island of Ireland. One of the first things the forum did, was to produce a detailed strategy document, outlining the current state of agroforestry in Ireland and the ways in which it could be developed. The group also networks and advocates where possible, to help inform policy and future agroforestry scheme development.
The IAF reaching Out
Ireland has many industry representative bodies, comprised of and not limited to, producer groups, co-ops, food production businesses, agri-mechanisation producers and political representatives. All these industry representatives have a shared vision to promote long term sustainable farming on the Island of Ireland. They know the emphasis being placed on climate mitigation and the role that carbon farming can play in this. The IAF acknowledges that Industry bodies can be key stakeholders in the roll out of agroforestry education in Ireland. The industry role can be one of communication, facilitation and networking, to encourage farmer participation, allowing the IAF and the education and promotion project access to their contacts and memberships to recruit participant farms and also to develop and promote a shared long term All-Island sustainable farming vision. The involvement of industry stakeholders is essential to successful agroforestry knowledge transfer to farmers.
Carbon farming and agroforestry could be seen to be a new concept that needs to be assimilated and put into practice on the Island, however it is an important part of any farming educational system, that to teach a new concept and have it accepted and practiced successfully means that it needs to be taught via attaching it to a skill or belief that farmers have already had for many years. The IAF are linking with agricultural, forestry and environmental advisors as they are key in developing this joined up learning and facilitating its roll out by attaching agroforestry and carbon farming concepts to existing dairy, beef and sheep farmer enterprise skills, knowledge and beliefs, so that it is not a new concept but rather the development and utilisation of a new idea/skill as a benefit to an existing one.
Joined up working is essential, both between researchers and agricultural/agroforestry support agencies but also with farmers -Farmers are key-farmers can be highly skilled and knowledgeable, both about their farming enterprises and their farm landscapes. The IAF believes that it is important that farmers help design how trees will fit into their farming enterprises, creating a more sustainable farming model and allowing food production to continue. The choice of tree and of design and location, will be important to the successful roll out of agroforestry into existing farm systems, Right tree - right place - right enterprise. It is also important that IAF works with every farmer, with organic and extensive farming systems, all the way to the farmers operating intensive farming systems. All farmers are custodians and guardians of the land and can work together to create a sustainable farming model for Ireland, agroforestry can form part of this sustainable farming model, both for improved animal welfare and for improved environment.
The Agroforestry Education and Promotion Project
IAF designed an agroforestry education and support project and this was funded under the Woodland Support Scheme provided by the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. This funding helped IAF become a fully functional organisation and a project officer was recruited on a part-time contract, approximately 8 days per month. IAF now has an advisory support group of 18 experts from academia, government, NGO sector and farmer representatives. There are 37 members and 144 on the mailing list, 80% of members are farmers. A new user-friendly website has been developed to promote agroforestry, www.irish agroforestry.ie. It was launched on the 23rd of March and promoted on social media, mailing lists and national publications. The website is an educational resource as well as a networking facilitator for everyone interested in agroforestry. Members get a private members account on the website and access to IAF’s files which include agroforestry reports and papers.
A monthly newsletter is sent out to the members, this is then placed on the website two weeks afterwards for non-members to access. It contains news, interesting articles, recommended reading and links to podcasts, it is sent out using mailerlite. It has a 60% open rate and the most clicked on article thus far was an article by Dr Lindsey Whistance on how agroforestry can give shelter, shade and nutrition to livestock. An effective system in order to promote agroforestry widely has been designed and includes factsheets, the newsletters of both IAF and EURAF as well as an “Ask an IAF Expert” section on the website. Members can email their agroforestry queries to IAF and our advisory group will provide advice by email. Information about successful case studies, including educational materials are also on the website. The members also benefit from membership of EURAF. Recently the National Organic Training SkillNet has granted IAF members access to their Biofarm conference archives and they are given a login for these.
To encourage stakeholder engagement, the IAF plans to hold online ‘member google meets’ throughout the summer and autumn, this will be a chance for the Project Officer to get to know the members better and also for the members to network. Some of our members are experienced agroforesters and can share knowledge with members beginning their agroforestry journey. Farmers learn best from other farmer practitioners. IAF will encourage members to become ambassadors for agroforestry, helping to promote agroforestry to other farmers and also advocate for policy change in a positive way.
A series of farm walks are being held as part of the education and promotion project, these walks act as an educational tool to promote agroforestry and transfer knowledge to the farming community and the general public. They also facilitate stakeholder engagement and encourage participation in agroforestry. Two Farm walks were held in the Autumn of 2021, these were in person farm walks and had about 40 attendees. There have been 3 farm walks in June and July 2022 and four more farm walks to see established sites in Northern Ireland are planned for August. Excellent discussion and knowledge transfer is happening at the farm walk events and farm walk discussion recordings will be shared more widely on the website and social media in the form of podcasts. A Silvopasture webinar was held on the 11th of July. Professor Jim McAdam and Dr Lindsay Whistance gave presentations on the benefits of silvopasture for the farm environment and livestock welfare. There was a farmer panel who led the post talk discussion, questions were also answered from viewer Q+A. The discussion covered the many benefits of silvopasture systems for animal welfare, biodiversity, soil health and productivity. The full webinar is available to view on the IAF youtube channel.