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Investigating agroforestry uptake on Irish farms

Forestry cover is substantially lower than the European average in Ireland with current afforestation rates remaining low. Rachel Irwin, Teagasc Walsh Scholar investigates Increasing tree cover on Irish dairy and drystock farms: the main barriers and perceptions that impede agroforestry uptake.

Agroforestry benefits fail to entice

Although increasing tree cover on farms has been identified as a climate mitigation and adaptation strategy, current policy is failing to entice farmers and landowners to increase tree cover on their farms. Agroforestry has been cited as a means to increase sustainability and biodiversity at a farm level while allowing farming to continue on the same parcel of land. Agroforestry refers to the incorporation of trees within agricultural landscapes such as through hedgerows, linear systems, riparian buffer strips or small woodlands, and has been a land management practice in many countries since the beginning of the agricultural era. Within agricultural landscapes, trees can act as important sources of shelter for livestock while increasing nutrient recycling and providing a supplementary fodder source. As such, they can provide both direct and indirect benefits to all farmers but especially dairy and drystock farmers.

However, even with profitable financial incentives currently in place to promote agroforestry uptake, barriers and the perceptions of farmers impede agroforestry adoption. This highlights that farmer decision-making regarding the adoption of agri-environmental measures does not follow the assumed economic rationality.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB)

To better understand the factors that influence farmer decision-making with respect to tree planting on farms, the main attitudes, influencers, barriers and intentions of the farmers must be identified. To facilitate this, a current research project with Teagasc and University College Dublin (UCD) has been set up to analyse farmers' perceptions of, attitudes towards, and willingness to plant trees on farms. The Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB) was used as the theoretical framework for the research and is a method used in many social-psychological studies to determine the reasoning behind a farmer’s willingness to adopt specific practices. The TPB states that intention is the most reliable predictor of behaviour and relates to both the motivation of the individual and their willingness to exhort effort to partake in this behaviour. The greater the intention to partake in the behaviour, the greater the likelihood that that individual will partake in that behaviour. Three independent socio-psychological constructs determine intention: attitude, subjective norm and perceived behavioural control.

Farmer surveys and interviews

Interviews with thirty-three farmers from both dairy and drystock backgrounds were undertaken to identify their main influencers, behavioural beliefs and perceived power of control. The results of the study were then used to construct an online questionnaire promoted through various publications. During September to October 2021, farmers from across Ireland were invited to partake in the online questionnaire to voice their opinions on incorporating trees on their farms. In total, 415 farmers completed the survey with 395 included within the final data set. This survey is currently in the early stages of analysis but already interesting results are coming to light.

Farmers not motivated by financial gain alone

The results of the study to date demonstrate that when it comes to planting trees on their land, farmers are not motivated by financial gain alone. Their attitudes and moral norms play a considerable part in their decision making process. Interestingly, the opinions of others with whom they are influenced by pay the biggest part in their intention to plant trees. This demonstrates that the current method of increasing agroforestry uptake, which is mainly top-down driven and focused on the economic incentives currently in place, will not suffice in increasing tree cover on Irish farms.

More research is required to identify appropriate methods of promotion and the creation of new policy measures that do not solely focus on financial gain.

New methods to increase agroforestry should focus on encouraging people of influential status within the farming community to promote agroforestry, and through promoting co-design and co-creative systems. 

This article by Rachel Irwin, Teagasc Walsh Scholar refers to the MSc project started in October 2020 originally entitled “Small woodlands on dairy and drystock farms” which is supervised by Dr Ian Short (Teagasc) and Prof Aine NiDhubhain (UCD). The article provides a brief outline of the research to date and an introduction to the main findings.

You might like this previous article by Rachel also: Small woodlands on dairy and drystock farms: Have your say on trees

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