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So it’s official, after 2 quarters of negative growth we’re in a recession. A lot of the businesses we are dealing with at West Cork LEADER Co-op are getting very worried. Yet amidst the anxiety there is a noticeable sense of relief too, a sense of getting back to reality and a sense that perhaps we have at last a chance to catch breath, to look at a new direction, a direction that’s about more than the housing market, overseas property shows, releasing equity and tax-lead foreign investment. With the US economy in severe trouble we can expect that the IDA have perhaps run out of road for a while and we’re largely going to have to get out of this one ourselves. So where do we look for new growth in our economy and a sustainable future? I’m convinced that the values we place in food and food production as expressed in our food culture can be strong contributors to that future.

Earlier in September, when the recession was still unofficial but clearly emerging, I had a chance to listen to Prof Kieran Byrne, the director of Waterford IT, address this topic of “Where to now?” He was speaking at the Slowfood Terra Madre conference and delivered a message of his Institute’s firm belief in a positive future for Irish food, food as a product but also food as part of the hospitality sector, and food as part of our culture. He talked about a return to what we are good at, valuing our own culture and from that deriving a wellspring of confidence. He spoke of the role of education in culturing young people, not just teaching them the raw facts or skills but instilling “confidence in our rising generations in our culture, our way of living”. This he argued offers the secure grounding for a new direction. “Perhaps now,” he said, “is the time when we have to transition and it is a challenge to transition. To transition from that era which marked the recent past, that era of the indigent. Perhaps we can turn now from that period in the lifecycle of the country, turn from it to something that is more gradual, more considered, that’s more reflective and surely that’s more healthy.”

Later this month, we will be launching the new LEADER programme for the region, which runs to 2013. In drafting a plan for the next 5 years we’ve had to take a hard look at the region and try to make sense of what works in West Cork and where the region is going. As part of the process we’ve undertaken an extensive review of the Fuchsia Brand, which we’ve published in the form of an e-book called Perspectives on the West Cork Regional Brand (you can have a look by visiting www.fuchsiabrands.com). It is now 10 years since the brand was launched and in that time we’ve learned a lot about branding and communication, but more importantly we’ve come to appreciate the value and input to economic development from West Cork’s society, its communities, culture and environment. We’ve joined the dots in thought and practice between a vibrant enterprise culture and a rich cultural and natural environment ,where there is a strong ethos of working together and a sense of responsibility for the world around us. At the time of writing I am in eastern Poland, preparing to present at a seminar where my main task is to expand on the LEADER approach, which is still fairly new here. I have been invited as an Irish representative, because all around Europe Ireland is held up as a real success story for LEADER. There are serious concerns in Poland about how well the LEADER approach fits with the Polish culture, in particular the notion of social capital, working together for a common purpose, has been seriously damaged here by 50 years of communism. Although there is a whole new generation that has not known communism, the generation that is now in power is very deeply affected by that period. Development workers here tell me that rural Poland really lacks an enterprise culture, a culture of doing and innovating. People here do not start businesses in anything other than retail or trading. There is huge interest in how LEADER groups can encourage the establishment of small rural businesses, particularly in food and tourism, which are so connected to the natural resources of the area, more embedded, more sustainable. My impression is that the biggest challenges are cultural and in particular that aspect of culture which is about values, and valuing what we know and do. As much as anything the successes that we’ve had in West Cork LEADER Co-Op have come from valuing – Fuchsia is all about communicating values – quality, tradition, pride and passion, but equally the projects we support at community level are about valuing – local heritage and the natural environment.

This thread was also picked up on in the Irish Times last week by Finbarr Bradley, a former economics professor at DCU and NUI Maynooth, when he set out an argument that national identity and traditions, and not solely academic research, provide the conditions for a society of innovation and entrepreneurship. He too has launched a book, it’s called Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference and has a lot to say about the role of culture in innovation. He argues that knowledge is constructed from experience not received through education or research. We can innovate only when we understand the meaning and value of information through our life experience. He says that “While knowledge is global, innovation is emphatically local. Countries and regions that successfully combine the benefits of global markets with local relationships based on quality and sense of place are likely to prosper.” I think that West Cork is very much a place where people learn by doing, certainly we would not have learned very much about regional branding without having put it into practice. The LEADER programme supports innovation by assisting people to learn by doing. We are taking this to a new level in the next programme by broadening the learning space to learning from doing with others. We are seeking to promote the emergence of a cluster of innovation among our food, tourism and craft enterprises.

The food culture that I have sought to document in this column over the last year is emphatically a culture of learning by doing. If you take a look at Perspectives you will read that the Fuchsia members between them have a combined turnover each year of over €106M, they are providing direct employment for almost 1000 people and are responsible for the creation of another 250 jobs in supporting sectors. Formal education and research play very little part in the success of the producers I have talked to. A major investment in science and advanced research is not I believe the way forward now for Ireland, as Finbarr Bradley and others have pointed out the return in terms of national prosperity is poor. As we look for responses to the recession, let’s look first to ourselves, what we know, value and can put into practice. Let’s look to learn from each other and how we can turn that learning into innovation and may other third level institutions follow WITs lead in culturing and valuing not merely producing recruits for jobs that may not be there or research that never gets off the shelf.

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With a bit more time to reflect on the Terra Madre experience, I’m starting to appreciate it’s more subtle effects. Something has taken root in my head, every now and then I catch myself coninuing conversations that I took part in weeks ago on a wet day at Waterford WIT. I guess it’s one of the symptoms of being listened to that one starts to talk more even when there’s no-one around. If you’re suffering similarly I would remind you that the online forum is sill open and active and will remain so until the world summit – Terra Madre in Turin in October. Looking through the various threads that have developed around each workshop it is clear that most found it very hard to capture the complexity of the discussions and often contrary positionsfrom the participants. The divide seems unbridgeable between large commercial export oriented farming and quality oriented producers developing local markets. There’s no doubt where the money is going though – I’m just looking at the Money & Jobs section in de paper and see that Enterprise Irelnad, Teagasc and 3 of the universties have just set up a National Functional Foods Research Centre and created 30 jobs – maybe I’m just naive or uncaring but I find it hard to get excited about Ireland’s plans to build core competency in functional foods targetting early infant development, metabolic syndrome and colorectal cancer. It just looks to me like inventing ways to offload powdered milk – it’s hardly going to put anymore money in farmers pockets given that they don’t own the processing companies anymore (with the exception of Carbery).

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I meant to post this right after the event. It’s not really news now, but for anyone who missed the public meeting regarding the Clonakilty market last week (and that won’t be many I know), it was tremendously positive. Over 90 people attended, most had to stand at the back of the room, some were left in the corridor, listening attentively. Mick Hanly, chaired and very well too – if there had been any dissenting voices in the room it was clear that he would have been up to the task of affording them space to be heard. But as he said himself “The first thing you find out if you’re going to a duck shoot in West Cork is ‘who’s the duck?'”. There was no-one present willing to put a case against the market. The absence of the 4 who voted against the proposal was a real source of dissappointment, even anger, for most of those in the room. The feeling was that the people of the town had elected these people to represent the interests of the town not themselves. It’s fair to say that there was a high degree of frustration among many at the meeting at the ability of a few individuals to block what appears to be the will of everyone else. Even the Mayor, Michael O’Regan, who had missed the vote, was prepared to say that no-one in Clonakilty was opposed to the market in principle. One or two of the traders expressed their cynicism about local authorities and argued that the only way forward was to force the issue through continued trading on the basis of ancient market rights. I do not think this is the way to go. For one thing, a victory for this initiative would defeat the Casual Trading Act and result in an unregulated market – anyone could come in and sell anything, without paying any license fee. It would not be the food market that Clonakilty wants. And besides, local democracy can only work if people are willing to make it work rather than try and exploit weaknesses in legislation to subvert it. I’m glad to say that this was the outcome of the meeting. It was agreed to send a delegation to present the market proposal again and that the coucillors present would all support a new motion. The town council meeting to discuss the motion will be held next Tuesday September 2 in the Town Hall at 7pm and as Cllr Anthony McDermot said “There’s nothing like people power”. There is an open invitation for people to attend and observe the meeting (some 30 can be seated, but more could show their support outside the meeting). Attendees cannot speak but the 3 person delegation will have the opportunity to represent the views of the townspeople as expressed at the public meeting. See my post above for details of the motion.

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Robert McCutcheon, my father, with my daughter Asha

Robert McCutcheon, my father, with my daughter Asha

Every summer in my youth during our annual holidays in Dunmore East my father’s extended family would make a pilgrimage to Rocketts of the Metal Man in Tramore. Seated on long benches we would feed on bacon ribs, crubeens and the flouriest spuds on earth. An important part of the ritual was that at some point during the meal one of the party would stand up and recite The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats – it was hung on the wall. It’s merit as a drinking game aside the poem itself struck a chord, an affirmation of the simple summer values of living outdoors and unadorned food. The lines that stuck with me were:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow

Whilst we occasionally had beans in our garden at home we never had bee hives. I think it was always somewhere in my father’s vision of his retirement that bee-hives and peace would be part of it. As luck would have it the bees came looking for him before he retired. The first year they took up home in his compost bin and I contacted a local beekeeper to take them away but the second year he took to them. By the time he retired 2 years later he had gathered 5 hives and was hooked. After 6 years of beekeeping he has over 30 hives, sells his honey in the Urru shops, Bolands in Kinsale and Hosfords and regularly helps novices by selling starter colonies. He’s secretary of the County Cork Beekeepers Federation which is based around the city and is one of eight local federations that are part of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers. I had just been examining a report issued in May entitled Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland that estimated the value to the economy of bees at €220 million a year and wanted to talk to my father about the state of beekeeping on the ground.

At present there are about 2,500 beekeepers in the Republic of Ireland managing over 22,000 colonies of bees, and another 500 or so in the North. With an average of less than 10 hives each, it is very rare that local honey gets beyond the local market, generally being sold in small shops and markets. In contrast to elsewhere in Europe and the US, almost all Irish beekeepers begin as hobbyists. This results in a particular mindset that is less bent on exploiting nature and more about quality than quantity. Social contact with other beekeepers through local federation meetings and honey shows creates a tight community and so helps with the spread of best practice in honey production and disease control.

This year it’s been a slow start to the summer – cold, windy and lacking in any spell of sustained heat. The weather pattern has been particularly frustrating for beekeepers. Despite the spurt of growth in May with here and there profusions of blossom, the temperatures have remained below 18°C. Most flowers don’t produce nectar in any significant quantity without heat, blackthorn and sycamore were particularly disappointing though the dandelions were good. One notable exception to this temperature dependence is a relative newcomer whose impact is very strongly felt – oil seed rape. This is a mixed blessing, as my dad describes it. Oil seed rape comes early in the year and provides nectar in huge quantities with very high sucrose levels – 55% as compared with 15-20% in most wild flowers. This is great to help colonies build up quickly after the winter but can mean that other sources get neglected. Once bees find a good supply of nectar they return, working non-stop until it is exhausted. It also makes them a bit ratty and hard to work with, they are buzzed up like kids on Fanta and working overtime. The honey produced from oil seed rape is prone to crystallisation and lacks the depth of flavour of other honeys. My dad usually mixes it with intensely flavoured ivy honey and encourages the crystallisation so that he gets a smooth creamed honey. Another nectar producing blossom that appears less vulnerable to the cold is fuchsia, which produces good flavoursome honey and is an important source for beekeepers along the coast of West Cork, where it is most abundant. Fuchsia also has the advantage of a long season with multiple flowerings in the year.

The relationship between beekeepers and farmers can be very important. Many commercial crops depend on or are improved by bee pollination. In return beekeepers generally need access to little pockets of unused land for their apiaries. The ideal site is sheltered with a southerly aspect and has a high ditch in the flight line to lift the bees away from humans. Most importantly beekeepers need farmers to recognise the value of biodiversity – in order to thrive, bees require a multiple of wild sources through the year, not just the commercial crop that the farmer is growing. Whitethorn and bramble are particularly valuable but are also severely affected by hedge cutting. And how grassland is managed has a big impact on clover. Clover has a tremendous value to the farmer for fixing nitrogen and wild white clover (not the New Zealand variety) produces delicious light honey, but it is damaged if the grass is cut for silage just as the clover comes in to flower.

The beekeeping associations are very keen to encourage new beekeepers. If you are interested in getting started you will find a community of enthusiastic people willing to share their time and experience. Learning the practice requires time spent observing a beekeeper at work and there is also an annual training course that runs in September/October with outdoor demonstrations in April and May. Check out the websites below for more information if you are interested. Otherwise look out for local honey and keep some clover and even a few dandelions on your lawn to help keep these wonderful little workers buzzing.

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