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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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Bill Hogan & Sean Ferry, West Cork Natural Cheese Co, SchullCongratulations to Bill Hogan and Sean Ferry of West Cork Natural Cheese Company in Schull on being presented with the Observer Food Monthly annual Judges Award for Outstanding Achievement. The judges made to the award to recognize the invaluable service that Mr Hogan and Mr Ferry have given in protecting our food culture and heritage – for the last 6 years they have been embroiled in a legal dispute with the Department of Agriculture at the core of which is their fight to preserve raw milk cheese making in Ireland. Their story was excellently presented in last months Observer Food Monthly

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