Knowledge Transfer: Farmers learn best from each other

By Minister of State Andrew Doyle

Knowledge Transfer or discussion groups have a rich history in Irish agriculture.

They are one of the drivers of growth for our agriculture sector by equipping our farmers with new learning and skills.

Previous analysis from Teagasc show that discussion group members are up to 20% more likely to adopt new technologies and best management practices.

As a farmer myself, I know that farmers learn best from each other. This is why our Knowledge Transfer programme is based on peer support and collaborative learning, facilitated by experts in that area.

It is also why we are investing almost €100 million in knowledge transfer under our current Rural Development Programme (RDP) – and I am certain future RDPs in Ireland will also support them.

There are currently over 19,100 farmers in the beef, dairy, sheep, tillage, poultry and equine sectors participating in KT groups.

KT in Forestry

We have now decided to extend this model to forestry so that farmers and other forest owners have the opportunity to benefit from this learning model.

In Ireland we have almost 22,000 forest owners thanks to the State’s investment of some €3 billion in establishing new forests throughout the country. Many of these plantations are approaching thinning or harvesting stage for their crops.

Extending KT to the forestry sector is a key commitment of the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 Midterm Review published earlier this year and I am very pleased to be delivering it now.

There are a number of reasons for extending Knowledge Transfer to forestry.

These include:
  • To overcome the fragmented and geographically-dispersed nature of Irish forests and to bring together farmers and other forest owners to collaborate and learn from each other’s experiences. By its nature, opportunities for them to meet are more limited than other farming sectors and KT groups will address this;
  • To help the 22,000 forest owners in Ireland achieve economies of scale when undertaking harvesting and other forest management operations. The new KT scheme for forestry will put these owners in a much stronger position when it comes to managing their forests and getting the best price for their investment;
  • To help establish a national network of KT groups so that individual forest owners have the opportunity to join with other owners and act collectively, either through an established forestry group or as part of a less formal arrangement;
  • To ensure that the wider rural economy gains from the economic activity of additional timber coming onto the market. My department estimates that timber production is set to double by 2035, with most of this increase coming from privately-owned forests;
  • To remove any significant barriers to timber mobilisation while also helping forest owners to manage their investment to its productive potential;
  • To ensure that our forests continue to be sustainably managed and that they contribute to our national environmental and social priorities.

We know that many private forest owners have limited knowledge of forest management operations including harvesting and may be unaware of the financial benefits of thinning or other forms of management intervention.

Earlier this year I visited Finland, which has a well-established forestry culture, to examine lessons which could be applied to Ireland as our investment starts to come to fruition.

KT groups for forestry will have a key role and will bridge this information gap thereby removing a significant barrier to timber mobilisation while also helping forest owners to manage their investment to its productive potential.

Fundamentally different

It is important to bear in mind that forestry is fundamentally different to more traditional forms of agriculture when it comes to knowledge transfer.

For example, a forest owner is likely to go through a rotation only once in their lifetime while a livestock farmer can learn from last year’s cycle.

Farmers know the value of their output and follow prices assiduously; the same cannot be said for forest owners – many of whom may not know the true value of their timber crop.

My department’s Felling Decision Tool puts into sharp focus the impact of making poor forest management decisions and therefore the importance of making informed choices.

For example, the indicative value of timber grown on an unthinned 10ha stand of Sitka spruce (yield class 22), felled 5 years too early is approximately €220,000 (standing); the value of the same forest, thinned on three separate occasions and clearfelled at its maximum financial rotation, is over 30% greater at €290,000.

One chance to get it right

As you can appreciate, forest owners only have one chance to get the management of their forests right and, without the right information, forest owners run the risk of seriously reduced revenues.

Timber security at harvesting time, sales dispatch protocols and a robust timber contract need to be firmly in place when it comes to realising your investment after a 40-year cycle.

I have no doubt that knowledge transfer for forest owners will deliver benefits for the owners, their local communities and the rural economy.

I would encourage all forest owners to take part in the scheme and to look at further details on my department’s website.