Gerard Deegan is an organic calf to beef farmer based in Cooksborough, Co Westmeath. Gerard grew up working on the farm – in the family since the 1700s – with suckler beef, sheep and tillage the main enterprises.

He recalls that interest rates were high and servicing loans was tough, with a lot riding on prices on the day when selling stock.

A move into dairying ensured a more regular income stream but still left Gerard feeling that he was just a medium through which money flowed, with very little of it “sticking”. Meanwhile, the rules, regulations and paperwork were growing.

The physical and emotional strain of farming like this, and of living in fear of what might go wrong, continued to grow but, rather than simply enduring it, Gerard decided to be proactive and make a radical change, planting 100 acres of his 130ac holding with forestry in 2012. This gave him the security of a guaranteed income, bringing immediate and immense relief.

Gerard put this well when accepting the RDS Teagasc Farm Forestry Award in 2019: “Forestry has allowed me to breathe again.”

Agroforestry in action

Gerard estimates that the farm now holds over 60 species of trees, from commercial pines and spruces to a huge array of broadleaves.

But, for Gerard, it wasn’t a case of planting the trees and closing the gate: he loves his trees and has spent endless satisfying hours nurturing his crop, filling gaps, clearing brambles and shaping young trees.

This means a healthier crop which he will soon begin thinning: 10km of managed pathways enable easy access and provide a boon for wildlife and recreation.

Back on the farmyard, timber abounds in all forms.

Woodchip is used with farmyard manure to generate compost to nourish the pastures. Ash is chopped for kindling and firewood.

Giant blocks of fallen oak and beech – some from specimen trees on the farm – are milled and neatly stacked to dry.

Some of these are used for kitchen furniture:

Gerard’s own kitchen – presses, table and chairs – is beautifully crafted with oak, giving it great warmth and character, like the man himself.

The fields around the house are used for grazing and silage – a short rotation grazing system is working very well for Gerard – and, to judge by the condition of the suckler herd, for his livestock.

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Gerard sells his beef through the Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op: the finished cattle – some as young as 18 months – are collected when ready, a very convenient system.

Astute stewardship

A bank of solar panels on the roof, a natural reedbed to filter water, and a rainwater harvesting system point to Gerard’s clever harnessing of nature’s help on the farm.

He returns the favour in spades, with 50 nest boxes for birds, a wildlife pond, pollinator strips and five acres of scrub where nature is left to its own devices.

He has a keen interest in soil biology and in optimising it through regular composting and holistic planned grazing.

A tidy kitchen garden, a polytunnel, beehives, pigs and a range of fowl – hens, geese and turkeys – make Gerard’s farmyard a lively and diverse place, and ensure a well-stocked kitchen.

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Hosting clients and their carers twice a week as part of a social farming project speaks to his generous spirit – and to the strengths of his farm in providing such a wide range of activities for these welcome guests.

Gerard comes across as a very considered person, unencumbered by tradition or any expectation to conform. A two-year stint as a volunteer in Africa was valuable in affording him a new perspective on the land and what he wanted from it, and from life.

His evolving farming journey appears guided by a mission to improve his own wellbeing as a farmer, and that of his land, livestock and nature.

The evidence would suggest that, just like his trees, all are flourishing under Gerard’s astute stewardship.

Gerard actively “shapes” his young broadleaved trees to improve their productivity. This involves identifying a leading shoot and removing competing shoots, also removing large side branches (over half the size of the main stem).

Remember, never remove more than one-third of the foliage when shaping.

Agroforestry – where trees are integrated into the farming system – is gaining traction as a more acceptable way for farmers to engage in forestry.

When done properly, targeted planting can enhance the farming system rather than detracting from it, creating a mosaic of habitats while providing more income streams and future options for the farmer.

  • The Irish Agroforestry Forum is holding a conference this Thursday and Friday, 16 and 17 November in Bantry, Co Cork. More at www.irishagroforestry.ie/