One of the highlights of the organic farming year will take place at the Landmark Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon from November 8th to 12th next. Organised by the National Organic Training Skillnet (NOTS), the BioFarm 2021 conference will focus on biological and regenerative farming and cover issues such as climate change, carbon sequestration, rising input costs, and farm profitability.
Founded in 2007 and co-funded by Skillnet Ireland and network companies, NOTS provides high-quality, low-cost, part-funded training for the organic and agrifood sectors. This training ranges from short courses aimed at farmers, food businesses, growers, processors, agricultural professionals, and consultants working in the organic sector, right the way up to a masters degree programme developed jointly with SRUC Aberdeen.
"We are also developing another masters programme with Waterford Institute of Technology at the moment," says NOTS network manager Sean McGloin.
“We look at the science of organic farming and why it works,” he adds. “We focus on the regenerative agriculture model. This can be attractive to conventional farmers as well who want to transition from a chemical-intensive to a low-input model. They can then look at the transition to the full organic model. It can be more profitable as it reduces input costs, increases carbon sequestration in the soil, and has the potential to reverse climate change.”
BioFarm 2021 is expected to attract more than 1,000 attendees over its five days, McGloin adds. “We are running the conference on a hybrid model this year and people can attend either online or in person. People resident in Ireland can attend online for €50. We have a range of speakers lined up from Ireland and overseas who will address a variety of topics. Monday and Friday will be devoted to the science of organic and biological farming. Tuesday will deal with small farms. Wednesday will cover tillage and Thursday will focus on biological and organic dairy farming. We expect the attendance to be a mix of organic and some conventional farmers interested in the topic, as well as policymakers who are looking at this.”
NOTS is also playing a role in helping Ireland meet its climate action targets, according to Dave Flynn, an executive director with Skillnet Ireland. "There is increasing recognition across Europe of the importance of the bioeconomy in making progress towards becoming a carbon neutral economy," he says. "We have a natural abundance of bioeconomy resources all over Ireland. In future we will see the emergence of regional bioeconomies around the country. For that to happen agrifood and farming are going to have to make some major changes."
While those changes may present challenges, they will also create new opportunities. “There is the prospect of cost reductions and the creation of new revenue streams,” Flynn continues. “Agriforestry is one area of opportunity. This combination of forestry and the agricultural sector will be an important part of farm businesses in future. From an energy perspective there are now crops that can be grown to create energy. In years to come we will be developing biorefineries to turn these crops into fuel.”
He points to Biorefinery Glas as an example of this. Led by the Munster Technological University, it is the first demonstration of a small-scale biorefinery in Ireland and is aimed at supporting the development of new business models and farmer diversification into the circular bioeconomy.
Making such transitions and securing the benefits will require new skills, Flynn adds. “Talent is at the heart of it. We are going to need to innovate, and we will need talented people for that. We will also need skills in areas like data-driven decision-making on farms, new management techniques and so on. From Skillnet Ireland’s perspective, there are three skillnet networks working with the industry to adapt to the impact of climate change. As well as NOTS, the Macra Agri Skillnet is working with conventional farmers to get on a more sustainable track and the Taste 4 Success Skillnet is doing the same in the agrifood space. They are advising and helping the industry develop the skills and expertise needed to mitigate the impact of climate change and to take advantage of the business opportunities that will arise from the transition to more regenerative farming models.”
Looking forward to BioFarm 2021, McGloin says it will offer farmers and other stakeholders an opportunity to meet up and share experiences and knowledge and avail of the benefits of organic farming. “Soil biology is an example,” he says. “This is something we have ignored for around 100 years. We look at what happens underground and how it affects what happens over the ground. One farmer has told us that he saved €40,000 in one year from reduced fertiliser costs as a result of using natural methods to look after the soil. That makes a huge difference to the bottom line.”