Farmers urged to ‘stop planting forestry’ until a new scheme is introduced

Farmers should cease planting forestry until the Department of Agriculture introduces a scheme “which is in favour of the farmer – and not companies”, a former farm forestry representative has urged.

Making the call, well-known Co. Roscommon drystock and forestry farmer Pat Collins outlined the issues currently affecting Irish farmers involved in forestry and stressed exactly why a new scheme is needed.

Speaking to AgriLand, Collins – a former forestry chairman of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) – said:

“I’m calling for a cessation until there’s a new scheme brought out, because the Forestry Service is trying to sell a forestry scheme that was launched in 1992 or 1993 – and it’s not working for us. It has failed.

They’re trying to replace the suckler cow with forestry – and it’s not going to work because you need a balanced approach; you need a balanced approach to rural Ireland.

Collins also outlined that there should be a halt until there’s a payment for carbon credits and there’s a payment for environmental practices: “I’m led to believe that carbon credits from forestry are owned by the farmer; if it’s not in forest law, they’re owned by the farmer.

“All forest owners must come together and voice their opinion towards the way the forestry service is dealing with their issues, and the Government.

“Everybody must come together on this in one organisation and fight for the right of forest owners. It has to come in together because it’s not happening at present.”

‘So many issues’

The Roscommon farmer claimed that agricultural producers are already becoming reluctant to plant, name-checking a number of factors for this.

“Why have people stopped planting? You have so many issues.”

The farmer pointed to the issue of ash dieback, which has seen over 1,600ha removed from Irish forests since 2013.

In addition, he highlighted the controversial Coillte contracts, which came to the fore last year over payment and insurance issues, which the farmer representative said “really annoyed” a lot of people.

On mapping, he said: “The recouping of money – companies are let go and walk away scot-free.

Before the farmer gets his last premium, the department digitises the map and it recoups money for an over-claim. Companies get away scot-free [if there’s an error] and the farmer is left to carry the can on this.

“Forest companies are being protected by the Government – but not the farmer.

“I had a farmer [talk to me] that had a fine of over €12,000; they told him it was going to be taken out of his future farm payments in a letter – and he considered taking his own life with the seriousness of it.”

Continuing, he added: “You have the replanting obligation for a lot of people. You have roads and felling licence issues. The delay in issuing those licences has been phenomenal.

“And you have the serial objector; the Government has still not dealt with that issue. There should be some form of legislation brought out, where somebody is continuously objecting,” he said.

The over-concentration of planting in certain areas to date has caused environmental problems too, Collins warned: “We’ve destroyed an awful lot of our natural habitats; our carbon sinks have been destroyed by very poor decision-making by the forestry service regarding planting.”

Centering on forestry roads, Collins said: “One of the big issues with the roads is if you apply for a roading grant, you’ll only get it on the production area of the crop.

“There’s 15% which is biodiversity – you do not get a roading grant for that. And that’s a real kick in the teeth to a farmer.”

Another key issue Collins identified is the premium offered to non-farmers – which is the same as active farmers – for planting forestry, albeit to a shorter time-frame (20 years versus 15 years). “There’s no incentive for a farmer to plant now.”

Carbon-neutral payments

Finally, on the environmental aspect, Collins underlined the increasing importance of farmers becoming carbon-neutral.

With increased attention being paid to agricultural emissions, Collins asked: “Why doesn’t Minister [for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael] Creed pay farmers that are carbon neutral? Give them a carbon neutral payment.

Carbon-neutral food production is going to be much more important than quality assurance going forward.

“Every farmer, if the farmer is carbon-neutral, should be entitled to a bonus for being carbon-neutral, whatever’s produced on their farm.

“Farmers have to get an environmental services payment as well as a carbon neutral payment for the commitment they’re giving to agriculture by producing food in an environmentally friendly way,” Collins concluded.