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Article appeared in issue 5, 2021

Aiming for zero

The path to carbon-neutral farming

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Developed in partnership with BiOrbic, the national bioeconomy research centre, Farm Zero C will bring together academic and industry experts in a world-first attempt to create a farm-level solution to a global problem. The interdisciplinary programme of work is targeting soil and grassland; animal diet and breeding; biodiversity; life cycle analysis; and renewable energy. It is also considering business models and planning to ensure all proposed interventions are commercially viable. In addition, the project is looking at the potential for carbon trading to be integrated within a low-emission farm model. 

The project is being run on Shinagh Farm in West Cork, a demonstrator farm, previously focused on demonstrating profitability and efficiency in dairy farming. The farm is owned by the four West Cork Co-ops and is run in partnership with Teagasc. It is an intensive, highly stocked commercial farm that will allow the project team to prove that a new sustainable business model for farming is possible: If it can be done at Shinagh, it can be widely applied anywhere. The changes will be implemented on the farm and evaluated and compared with benchmark data to evaluate the impact each step can make in reducing emissions.

Enda Buckley, director of sustainability at Carbery, who leads their efforts on the project, said: “One of the first things we did, in May 2020, was to plant multi-species swards to gather evidence that grassland and better soil management can help absorb carbon. Other activities that have happened in Shinagh throughout 2020 include extensive habitat mapping of the farm (to measure biodiversity levels and set targets), and soil carbon levels have been measured throughout the farm.

We have also carried out a life cycle assessment, which maps and quantifies the total inputs and outputs of the farm in terms of emissions. There have also been feed trials to experiment with reducing methane emissions. Depending on funding this year, we would also hope to install solar panels and trial sensors and other technologies.”

The project has attracted widespread attention, and not just from the science and agriculture communities, with several film crews travelling to Shinagh to document the project. “We’ve been blown away by the interest and enthusiasm in Farm Zero C – from dairy farmers to all the scientists we’ve approached, and now wide interest from overseas partners. I’m excited to be part of a project that is showing that net zero emissions farming can help to make agriculture more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.”

Farm Zero C was recently awarded a €2m grant from Science Foundation Ireland’s Zero Emissions Challenge and work is underway hiring researchers, a project manager and a farm researcher. Two of this team will be based full-time at Shinagh.  

Jason Hawkins, Carbery CEO explains: “We didn’t know, when we started work on this project two years ago, how much focus there would be on farming and environmental impact in the current climate. But our goals remain the same, though the landscape has changed around us. We want to use this project to show that it is possible to run a profitable, efficient dairy farm operation, that is also climate neutral. And we’re well on the way to proving this.” 

Farm Zero C is a collaboration between the following industry and academic institutions:

BiOrbic, Carbery, UCD, Trinity College Dublin, MTU, Grassa and Teagasc.