Eco-friendly farmer greets wrapping fields in cover crop ‘blankets’ during winter

An eco-friendly Irish farmer who received a new sustainability award says he reaps the environmental benefits of wrapping his fields in colorful ‘blankets’ every winter.

Ugene Ryan, 49, from Portlaoise, is the third generation in her family to make barley to brew Guinness.

He is part of a group of tillage farmers in Ireland who have adopted the use of cover crops in fields that would previously have been laid bare during the winter months after harvesting the cash crops for the year.

This practice has reduced the carbon footprint of farmers while improving soil fertility and limiting erosion caused by heavy rains.

Mr Ryan, married with two children, plants a range of winter flowers and vegetables in his fields which grow in the fall and winter and create a thick barrier against the harsh elements.

The colorful mix of plants has also created a new habitat for insects and wildlife, with bees and pheasants particularly fond of the dense vegetation.

“Cover crops do a number of things to protect the soil during the winter,” Ryan said.

“They take up any nutrients that might be left in the soil after a crop has been harvested and they help create organic matter which we then reincorporate into the soil and they also help protect the soil from heavy rains.

“So it’s like having a big blanket on the floor. “

He added: “I am certainly much happier to have green cover on the ground rather than bare soil, which would have been the traditional way.”

Mr Ryan also experimented with environmentally friendly methods of cleaning cover crops before the planting season, rather than relying on herbicides.

One method is to wait for a strong frost and then to walk through the fields with a roller.

“Because the crop is frozen, it just breaks when you drive on it and it kills the crop and it rots,” he explained.

The farm, which has been in the Ryan family for over 100 years, grows barley, wheat, oats and rapeseed for the market.

It is the spring barley that is used to brew Guinness. The farmer’s work with cover crops helped him win the inaugural Guinness Sustainability Award at this month’s Irish Malting Barley Excellence Awards.

Mr Ryan said he had to take a long-term view to justify the effort to sow a crop that made no immediate profit.

The tillage industry has a huge role to play in carbon sequestration. We’re not entirely carbon neutral, but we’re very, very close. Protecting the tillage industry is therefore of vital importance for the future.Eugene Ryan

“The benefits can be somewhat difficult to quantify or cost exactly,” he said.

“Definitely, I saw the difference and I would say my soil has become a lot healthier. “

The farmer said his fields have also become a local attraction for locals.

“I guess if you have a wheat or barley field it all looks the same because it’s the perfect height and it’s nice and even, whereas it might look a bit unsightly because there are large plants and little plants and all kinds of colors in it, ”he said.

“It’s definitely eye-catching, but the benefits are huge. “

Mr Ryan insists that tillage in particular is one of the most carbon efficient industries in Ireland.

“The tillage industry has a huge role to play in carbon sequestration,” he said.

“We’re not entirely carbon neutral, but we’re very, very close to it.

“So protecting the tillage industry is vitally important for the future. “

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