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Archive for September 22nd, 2008

A Real Workhorse

Sandra Schmid, Ballylickey with her Irish Cob mare Winnie

Sandra Schmid, Ballylickey with her Irish Cob mare Winnie

Among the interviews that have really stuck with me in the last year of writing this column, have been those involving a relationship between farmer and farm animals. So when I looked at the programme for the An Sanctóir food event, one talk that really piqued my curiosity was that on Working Horses by Sandra Schmid. Sandra lives with her husband Tim Rowe, in a fantastic eco-house in a sheltered glade in the Ouvane Valley near Ballylickey. Tim is a full-time beekeeper and is also speaking at An Sanctóir. They have a small holding of 5 acres with a few more rented but are not farming commercially, being content for now to produce a large proportion of their own food. Sandra is still learning about farming with horses but is convinced that they have a valuable role to play for some small farms, particularly as the cost of fuel and fertilisers continues to rise.

 

“We have two Irish cob horses, which people would know as a type of horse developed by Irish travellers. They are smaller than Continental and English work horses, but still have the short back and musculature of a workhorse. They’re more suited to working on a small farm like this and pick their way between potato ridges. They have a very grounded temperament and will stay pulling all day.” The Irish Cob is not strictly a formal breed and as such there are no records of bloodlines etc. They were developed for pulling caravans and as such are also ideal for most farm work. Without farm work, however, the workhorse characteristics they have developed are being diluted. With their placid temperament, cobs are now being interbred for use in riding schools, the resulting animals are taller and have longer backs for more comfortable riding.

Sandra uses the horses to take a lot of the manual work out of growing potatoes, their main crop, which they eat themselves and feed to the pigs. “We bring in weanling pigs for the winter. They root up everything and dig out the left over potatoes. They love rooting and grow nice and fat before they go to the freezer in March. They also leave us with a field stripped of vegetation and well fertilised. It means that we don’t have to plough the field, instead the horse can sort it out with the harrow to make it nice and smooth. Then we bring him in with a ridger to make furrows for the potatoes. Our project for next year is to restore a potato digger that we bought up north. Getting hold of good farm tools has proven to be a real problem. There are loads lying around, the harrow was here when we bought the farm. But most of what you find is only suitable for painting as an ornament and would fall apart in a field. In America some farm communities, like the Amish, have never stopped using horses and so have continued to develop and improve their new horse drawn tools.”

“I’m not trying to suggest to farmers that they go back to working with horses, in most cases it would not be viable. That said, I have read American research which concludes that horses are more economical on holdings up to 20 acres. But working with horses is right for me and for our home. I don’t want the noise that goes with tractors taking over this place. I have come from a place where I could always hear the motorway, so now I want to hear the birds singing as I work.”

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Plant a Seed

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds nr Turk Head, Skibbereen

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds nr Turk Head, Skibbereen

There was a time in Ireland when we would not have countenanced lifting a morsel to our mouths without first giving thanks to the Creator for the gifts we had received.

It was understood that life was a miracle and as such food was a gift from above, in which God blessed our toil in the fields. Now don’t worry, I’ve not fallen under the entrance of campaigning creationist Sarah Palin, more simply my point is that we no longer view food as a gift from something greater than ourselves. This is not just a sentimental loss but is also a fundamental danger when we turn the tables and start to play god with nature. The God complex is nowhere more evident than in the science of genetics, particularly genetic modification, the dangers of which have been well spelled out and thankfully for now kept from our door. Just 2 weeks ago at the Terra Madre Ireland conference in Waterford, Minister for Food, Trevor Sargent, gave a solemn promise that Ireland will remain a GMO free country. The real agenda behind genetic modification (GM) is not simply the worthy desire to produce a superior product but is actually to grab ownership of the means of production itself – the seed. Monsanto, which has 90% of the GM-plant trait patents, doesn’t need to own all of the world’s agricultural land if instead it can effectively charge a rent on land use through seed patent monopolies and the prohibition of seed saving by farmers. There is a small but growing movement to protect agriculture and biodiversity from this scenario by spreading and improving the practice of seed saving.

One such seed saver is Madeline McKeever, who is one of the founder members of Growing Awareness and farms 30 acres near Skibbereen. Madeline is giving a talk on seed saving at An Sanctóir so I called down to find out more about seed saving. “The problem with most of the seed that we buy in Ireland, is that it has been produced in hot countries and it doesn’t always work well in our growing conditions. The Pacific North West in the USA and Southern Europe are the most significant seed producing areas, they have dry summers and mild winters. It is hard to produce seed in commercial quantities in a damp climate like ours, but locally produced seed will be better adapted. My guiding principle is to concentrate on what works for me. If it works here in difficult conditions, it will work for others in this area.  We have a good climate for producing brassica seeds but it is marginal for other stuff. I could specialize and grow loads of brassica seeds but most of my customers are home gardeners and as far as possible I want to be able to provide them with all of their seed needs. So it’s important that I provide a range and that I sell the basic normal vegetables seeds that work.”

Madeline walked me through her seed gardens, introducing me to her plants. Many of these are the result of years of refining and improvement through careful recording and selection. At this time of year, the gardens have a wonderfully wild and outlandish feel. So many of the plants change form when they run to seed, stalks shooting sunwards as the leaves recede, tubers, pods and seed heads all ready to burst and disperse. Ordinary garden vegetables like the carrot plant were to me unrecogisable in their fertile form.

“I’m convinced that growing our own food is going to really take off. At the moment nobody is actually living off their garden, but in a post peak oil society we may even see people growing their own staples. It seems to me that very little research money is being channeled into improving plant varieties that can thrive without petro-chemical and fossil fuel inputs. I have a project going here with Andean potatoes; they have survived the blight this year but are not to everyone’s taste. I hope they will eventually cross with Irish varieties, and that one year through selection and interbreeding I could produce blight resistant spuds.” Madeline attributes her experiences in Growing Awareness as a significant motivator for herself and others to get working on solutions. Developing a shared understanding and consensus about the problems facing food production has planted a seed in Madeline which has taken firm root and is branching out. You can find out more about Madeline’s seed catalogue at www.brownenvelopeseeds.com

 

 

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August this year marked the tenth anniversary of Growing Awareness, a Skibbereen based food and farming group and on Sunday next (September 28th) they have partnered up with An Sanctóir, the holistic centre in Ballydehob, to put together a day of walks, talks and demonstrations looking at local food production. The guided walk will take in the An Sanctóir’s ‘Nature Trail’ which supports a wide variety of wildlife and habitat areas, and will finish in the new Forest Garden Project begun this spring. The full days’ programme will include a selection of speakers, demonstrations and activities on topics such as: Beekeeping; Working Horses: Community and Schools Gardens; Allotments and Vegetable Box Schemes; Fruit and Nut Growing; Basket Making; Seed Saving and much more. Gardeners are invited to come along and enter the Heaviest Pumpkin and the Largest Diameter Sunflower Head competitions. You can enjoy the on site Cafe from the deck of a 40ft Pirate Ship whilst being serenaded by local musicians! People are also welcome to bring a picnic. The Café will be raising funds towards the running costs of the event and there will be no admission charge. For the full schedule of events visit www.ansanctoir.ie. For my column this week I took the opportunity to find out a bit more about 2 of the individuals who will be presenting on the day and learn something of their involvement in the food culture of West Cork.

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