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Archive for February, 2009

We Should Talk

 

Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese

Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese

I’m sitting in the stimulating setting of the new Riverside Café in Skibbereen with Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese watching jackdaws steal peanuts from a feeder intended for smaller, more colourful birds. “I think we should talk about the crisis,” Bill says to me. I agree because I want to see where this will go, but I’m hesitant because the gloom is getting to me and I want to hear something positive in this bright haven by the water. Bill Hogan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated cheese makers. He and Sean Ferry started West Cork Natural Cheese in Schull in the mid 80s and produce two large hard cheeses in the Swiss style using summer milk – Gabriel and Desmond. Their cheeses have many champions, particularly among Ireland’s community of chefs, who tend to favour them over parmesan for flavours that have as much bite, depth and authenticity but are distinctively Irish. “If you want to talk about something positive then let’s talk about Irish milk. Sean and myself have proven that there is great taste in Irish milk. When you can walk out on a lovely May morning and sniff something good and then find that it’s there in the cheese too, you know you are doing something right. These are tastes that were there all along and the work of the artisan is to give them back to the people.”

Bill and Sean have also been championed over the years by food writers, particularly recognising their refusal to go under in their legal battle with the Department of Agriculture. Almost all of their 2002 cheese production was seized when TB was found in 2 of the herds supplying their milk. This effectively shut down the business without compensation. Bill and Sean were able to prove in court that the cheese did not present any health risk but still the dispute dragged on for four years and six court cases. Despite their appeal against the seizure being repeatedly vindicated in court, they have never received meaningful compensation. It was only through an alliance with Newmarket Co-op that the pair finally got back to making cheese again, just in time for the recession!

“You know this crisis has been coming for a long time. There’s no respect for money; it’s just another commodity to be traded. Did you know that 98% of currency transactions have nothing to do with commerce? It’s a demented game that has to end. That kind of playing with value should be illegal. Our trading relationships should be based on a respect for labour and a respect for real value. I know, for example, that the Sterling exchange rate is hitting food producers very hard; it would be so much steadier if the UK were in the euro, but they’re not. You can’t eat money, it’s the means of exchange not the end. I’m not against people being materialistic but we have to separate need from greed, everything has gone so bling. Getting rich and spending money doesn’t make you free. Marx said that real freedom comes from knowing what you need.” Bill suggests that this is where the sustainability movement has so much to offer in starting with meeting our needs now but not compromising the needs of future generations.

Much of Bill’s character was forged during his involvement in the US civil rights movement and working with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He has first hand experience of dramatic social upheaval. He understands how lasting success can be gained through non-violent methods and the destructive and equally enduring impact of violence. “I see that a lot of people are furious at what has happened. My great fear is that some people won’t have enough to eat, that old people can no longer heat their homes, that families can’t afford kids school books. The one bonus for Ireland is that the crisis is global so we shouldn’t lose our talent like before. Emmigration is not a great option, I mean there’s jobs in the Canadian Yukon! …I think we’re in a pre-revolutionary state. A major overhaul is needed but we have to ensure that it doesn’t turn to violence, we must steer that fury to non-violent change.” Bill is not averse to the idea of upheaval but it is people that he cares about not ideas.

 “We must get back to basics in our relationships,” Bill continues, “Gandhi said that the revolution was about a transformation of relationships not the seizure of power. To do this we have to start talking to each other and get out of the box of thinking that the system will solve my problems. Just look at what the community achieved in Schull, when they got the Community College set up. They kept at it in spite of being told no; no, they were told, it doesn’t make any sense to have a college like that down on a tiny peninsula. But it has been fantastic. This is what we need now, not just intelligent individual thinking but community intelligence and will. I think people are very isolated in the gloom; Fuchsia could bring producers together to discuss how the crisis is affecting them. We can build on that Sean and I were thrown into crisis in 2002 when our case with the Department of Agriculture began. We’ve learned a lot about how to keep a small business going in a crisis situation and I would say that relationships are the key. In particular, our relationship with our bankers, AIB, has been fundamental. They have stuck with us right through the case. I do recommend to people to keep talking to your bank, don’t hide in the hole. Tell them what they can do for you and what you can do for them.”

“We have to find ways of having more direct and honest trading relationships that are based on real value, not stealing. When I look at how our sales have been affected I can see that they have really held up in the local market, particularly the English Market in Cork and the farmers markets. It’s in the big multiples that sales have really been hit. As a rural region we can start looking at our relationships with basic questions like, How are we going to feed ourselves? and, How are we going to sell food into the cities?”

As a rural development worker, I love the simple dynamic that the countryside produces food for the cities. It is a natural geographic relationship between people and places that allows everyone to have their need met. We talk about positive solutions, our great food and natural resources like renewable energy. Bill returns to the quality of the milk on the Mizen peninsula. “I would love to get involved in establishing a Mizen dairy, a small up to date plant that could deal with the wonderful milk that’s there. The technology that we’ve been using to make our cheese has moved on a lot. I’d design it differently if we were starting again.” It’s not just the hardware that Bill wants to re-invent. “This big corporate model that Ireland chose to pursue in the 1960’s is inappropriate; it looks good on paper, lower costs etc but it’s less diverse and it supports fewer people. The same applies to farms, they’ve shown the negative impact of corporate style agri-farms in the US, particularly how it leads to the deterioration of land and community. The family farms we have on the Mizen employ more people and families have a long term perspective of passing on the land in good health to the next generation.” I look again at the jackdaws at the feeder, and ponder how we can help the many smaller, more colourful birds get to the peanuts – if only they could talk to each other!

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Martin Carey, Craft Butcher, Bandon

Martin Carey, Craft Butcher, Bandon

Picked up this from the Cork City Slow Food blog. Sounds brilliant and it’s in Bandon too!!
Slow Food West Cork Convivium, Urru Culinary Store, Dan Maloney Meat Centre and Martin Carey Butchers all of Bandon have joined together to provide a unique opportunity to give a masterclass by meat and culinary experts.
Visit the site for full details:
http://corkcityslowfood.blogspot.com/2009/02/slow-food-heritage-series.html

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Hi Ivan,

Meeting to be hosted by the committee of Clonakilty Market, invited local business people, and invited local resident speakers to discuss and address the current situation in regards to the proposed outdoor food market in Clonakilty. Meeting to be chaired by Mick Hanly, Chairman of Clonakilty Tourism board.

 

All are welcome.

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
Public Meeting
8 p.m.
Emmett Hotel, Clonakilty

Regards

Gerald Kelleher

Chairman, Clonakilty Food Market

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Charlie Donovan and John Dolan

Charlie Donovan and John Dolan

I have been interested for some time in a model of food production called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) so I was delighted to find that a few pioneering souls are getting one going on the Sheep’s Head. Community supported agriculture is a relatively new socio-economic model of food production, sales, and  distribution aimed at both reducing the financial risks for the producers and increasing the quality of food and the care given to the land. It is also a method for small scale commercial farmers and gardeners to have a successful, closed market. The basic concept is that a group of consumers make a financial commitment to fund the annual budget for either the whole farm or for an individual crop, in this way they become ‘members’ or ‘shareholders’. Most CSA farmers prefer that members pay for the season up-front, but some farmers will accept weekly or monthly payments. Some CSAs also require that members work a small number of hours on the farm during the growing season.  

Through LEADER I’ve spoken with quite a few farmers around West Cork about diversification and the biggest stumbling block is handling risk, particularly market related risks like who’s going to buy this and when? How much will they pay? How can I get it to them? Whilst most farmers are willing to trust themselves to manage the risks around production costs and output, the unknowns about the market are often too much and their experience is too limited. For commodities like beef, milk and cereals often the only market variable is price. By answering these market questions in advance and spreading the production risks, community supported agriculture could really be a way of getting a greater diversity into Irish agriculture. Achieving a greater range of production closer to the point of consumption has so much to offer West Cork from the point of view of food security, local economies, food miles and biodiversity. In July of last year the Irish government set in motion a review of food security on this island. This was in response to a move in the UK to increase food self-sufficiency from 120 to 160 days. It seems that if our time runs out we’ll be stuck with meat and butter as these are the only products in which we are wholly self-sufficient, sounds like the Atkins diet.

Bantry CSA will produce its first harvest later this year and as far as I can gather, it is the first of its kind in Ireland. I travelled down to Gerahies on the Sheep’s Head to meet John Dolan, the CSA founder and co-ordinator and Charlie Donovan, one of the three farmers involved in the scheme. John explains his motivation for getting the CSA scheme going:

“Lisa and I have for the most part taken control of our own food supply, if we’re not growing it ourselves then at least we know where it comes from. But we don’t have enough land to grow our staples, particularly cereals. Many of my friends are in a similar situation, so we were looking at ways of sourcing more directly. I had heard about CSAs and thought there was no reason they’d have to be just fruit and veg box schemes. They could be field crops too. So I started talking to my friend Charlie Donovan to see what he thought of the idea.”

Charlie liked the idea and helped John with talking to other local farmers that would be receptive and had the right land and skills. In the end two more Sheep’s Head farms, Stephen and Packie O’Donovan and Dennis Holland agreed to join the scheme. Stephen, who has featured previously in this column, and his brother Packie, will grow a half acre of Sarpo Mira potatoes for the group. Dennis will grow 3 acres of oats. Charlie is a fit man in his seventies and seems to relish the manual work that growing potatoes on a small scale involves.

“I never set drills, but for more than an acre you’d have to. It’s all done by hand and we plant in ridges. The ridges give you double the crop over a drill and there’s no need to weed. The main fertiliser is the straw from under the cattle after calving. It doesn’t force the crop and it keeps them up all year. That’s the way I do it and I knock great value and satisfaction out of it. I’ve always set about ¾ acre and I sell to the local shops, it’s my holiday money. I always set Kerrs Pinks but whatever they got this year it burned the sally trees as well. We’re not using spray in this CSA scheme and that will be a big difference. It’s less work and I don’t like spray anyway. I hope that what we do this year will be a trial for others around. If they see it succeeding with me then it’ll get big.”

For the consumers in the group the CSA allows them to take an active role in production – this is co-production in practice. Rather than passively eating what’s on your plate, a CSA consumer has had a role in deciding what will be grown and how. I asked John about whether the group were going the organic route, “Not just yet, when I spoke to farmers about organic growing I could see the shutters coming down. Ideally, the CSA would offer an organic option and this is something that the Bantry CSA aspires to. But there are no oat producers in the area, never mind organic producers. So for now the choice for potential consumers is local before organic. As they get to understand the local market and uncertainty around inputs decreases I think some local producers will be encouraged to give it a go. With the potatoes, I have ordered enough seed for ½ acre of sarpo mira, which is a blight resistant maincrop variety, hopefully this will eliminate the need for spraying. The oats will be grown from biodynamic seeds and the crop will not be sprayed with any growth regulators, herbicides or pesticides”

Despite our still cherished Celtic tiger notions of upperocity, I think that most of us have a sense that farming is good work. We hold close the notion of a meitheal or community gathering for collective work which is built on passed down memories of farm work that brought people together, such as at harvest time and threshing. Many CSAs draw people into aspects of the work on farm. One of the big challenges for Bantry CSA will be to develop the infrastructure locally for processing oats, which need to be dried, dehusked and rolled before they land steaming on the breakfast table. The group of 30 that buy into the oats CSA will need to invest not just their subscription but also some time and energy, though John has promised a harvest party after the threshing!

Since talking with John and Charlie, I have spoken with others around West Cork that see the merit of getting community supported agriculture schemes going in their area. I would be keen to hear from interested farmers or consumers – if that’s you then contact me by phone (023/34035) or email (ivan@westcorkleader.ie). If you’re local to Bantry and interested in being part of Ireland’s first scheme – Bantry CSA, then you can contact John Dolan at 086/0569832 or dunodolain@gmail.com 

See here for a clearer explanation of the scheme: http://zone5.org/2009/02/18/bantry-community-supported-agriculture/

 

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