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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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Happy New Year and apologies for not having posted since early December – the Southern Star went into Christmas shopping ad mode and I took a holiday. Trying to walk that off now – that’s the price of full fat principles! Anyway whilst walking I’ve been thinking about what foods, farmers and producers I’d like to find out more about this year. Your suggestions would be very welcome, here’s the current pipeline: I’ve done a bit of work looking into Community Supported Agriculture which is getting going on the Sheeps Head thanks to John Dolan, Charlie Donovan, Stephen O’Donovan and a few other pioneers. More about that later this month. In house here we have a new learning initiative going with Safe Food that is targetted at eight to nine year olds, its called Taste Buds.  I’m going to try and talk to a teacher that has been using the pack and see what I can learn about what can motivate kids and their parents – that’s for next week.

For now I wanted to let you know about Cork Food Web – it’s a project to support local food production in Cork and they have a fab social networking type website that should be great for getting and keeping people involved. This Thursday they have a meeting to push the project out into the public realm and anyone interested in getting involved is welcome – just visit the link above etc.

Finally, my condolences to the family of Liam O’Regan and all at the Southern Star on the death of their editor and owner last Saturday.

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