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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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Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

I realise that by the time you read this Halloween will be over and you’ll be mentally preparing yourself for Christmas, but indulge my reflections on the gradual erosion of another piece of our food culture. Now I don’t feel old enough yet to say “in my youth”, but you know what I mean, when trick or treating we’d expect a haul for our bonfire feast that was roughly divided like this – a tenth money for sweets; a tenth Penguin Bars or Wagon Wheels; a tenth assorted other bars and sweets, and about three quarters and apples and nuts. Before heading out into the darkness with our friends we’d have enjoyed a family evening of humourous apple games and, never owning a nutcracker, tried a multitude of unsatisfactory nut opening techniques. These days, cash is expected and handfuls of minitreats are offered as a sweetener to encourage a song or rhyme before departure (Note: success in this cultural request is usually instantly regretted). But have you seen the look you get if you proffer an apple nowadays? Blank disbelief. I’m a bit saddened at this loss and it’s not just nostalgia. In my experience, Cadbury’s Minitreats taste exactly the same every day of the year, but apples certainly don’t – there is absolutely nothing like biting into a sharp, tangy Irish apple to remind me that though the natural world is fading to winter, it has taken care to store away its sweetness and strength.

 

This week I visited Paul McCormick and Jacinta French at Woodkerne Nurseries near Skibbereen who are trying to rekindle our interest in growing apples and nuts. The couple rear organic cattle and grow fruit and nut trees on the organic farm they share with Paul’s brother’s family and his parents. The cattle they rear are Angus and Angus Kerry cross, but they will soon be introducing Droimeann, which are a rare Irish breed. When I ask Paul about his interest in the project to restore this breed, his answer sums up a lot of what the couple are about – “We have a small farm and are never going to have a big herd, if we are going to make a difference, then we need do something different.” Paul and Jacinta both have a long standing interest in the environment, particularly trees. Jacinta worked as a volunteer in the Rainforest Movement in Canada before moving back to Ireland and has been involved with the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation in West Cork. Paul worked as a mechanic before moving to Ireland but has always been planting trees – “From the early days of the environmental movement in the 1980s, planting trees was the thing to do to save the planet. But at the same time, farmers were clearing them because they didn’t produce food. I thought maybe they do. We’re very interested in this idea of the forest garden. Fruit and nuts contain proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and sugars – in fact, most of the necessary components of a balanced diet. Together with meat and fish, fruit and nuts form the basis of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet to which our bodies have evolved. A lot of people think that we may be less well adapted to the grain/flour based diet than we assume – it’s a diet that stems from a 10,000 year experiment with grain agriculture.”

Paul and Jacinta take me out to walk their farm which they describe as a long term, small scale research project in which they are trialling dozens of varieties of fruit and nut trees. Near their home, they have set an orchard, which in years to come will provide apples, pears and plums at arms reach, as well as being a valuable wind break. We cross a ditch that has had its boundaries widened to accommodate the interspersed planting of hazels, cobnuts, apple trees and large fruiting hawthorn. Paul reckons that the loss of grass on the margins is made up for in improved grass quality owing to the shelter provided. In the next field a large corner has been planted with Heartnuts or Japanese Walnut. Of the four species of walnut suited to the Irish climate, these seem to be the most commercially attractive, and have been proven to thrive on Fota Island in Cork. We stroll down a laneway on which the ditches have also been put to use and stop at an area of hazel coppicing. “Hazel used to be a valuable crop. It was coppiced for sticks. Every time the stems were cut back to a few inches they would burst up in a multitude of shoots the next year. These were cut for use in building and furniture making. Alison Ospina in Skibbereen buys some from us to make her green wood chairs but no-one else uses them now. In other countries they have maintained their woodland traditions, like coppicing, but in Ireland that was lost after the Tudor plantations when the forests were cleared. Between 1600 and 1700, forest cover went from 25% down to 1%. That’s why we picked the name Woodkerne for our project – at that time it referred to people of the older culture who hid out as rebels in the woods.”

Further down the lane, we reach the old railway line and the trees take over. The old line, now naturally regenerated with ash trees leads to a pocket of natural woodland which Paul and Jacinta have interspersed with Sweet Chestnut trees, mainly French in origin. They have also grown some from seed collected from local trees and hybrids grown in north western USA. The undergrowth is dense and I wonder how one could harvest nuts among the briars, but Paul explains that as the trees spread the undergrowth will disappear. “We have grown cuttings from a huge walnut tree in Ballydehob. There is almost no growth under it, about two inches of grass and that’s all. You can literally sweep up nuts by the bucket load every year.”

A lot of the trees at Woodkearne Nurseries are grown from cuttings grafted on to roots from smaller, hardier specimens like crab apple trees. The method Paul and Jacinta use to compensate for poor soils is to grow trees on their own roots by planting the tree deeper than usual so that the graft is buried thus allowing scion roots to form. This contrasts to the general practice and gardening advice of leaving the graft above the soil. This method can produce trees that are larger than usual but given poor soils and sometimes difficult growing conditions extra tree vigour is not usually a problem. Eager to improve tree breeding, Jacinta and Paul are very keen to hear from anyone that has well cropping nut trees or native fruit tree varieties from which cuttings could be taken. If you are interested in growing fruit and nut trees in your own garden, you can buy bare root trees directly from Paul and Jacinta at Skibbereen and Bantry farmers markets from December to April or arrange to visit them at Woodkearne Nurseries near Skibbereen. Their full catalogue is available online at woodkerne.net

As Paul and I walk back to the car, we return to the environmental imperative for their project. “With oil running out rapidly it seems clear that we’re all going to have to start producing more of our own food. What I’d really love to see is all of our parks being planted with fruit and nut trees. They have that in some countries and people can just go in and take what they want.” Now, if they could just host the bonfires in those parks too wouldn’t they be ideal for Halloween parties!

 

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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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Tart it up!




Roland Newenham, rhubarb grower, Carriagline

Roland Newenham, rhubarb grower, Carriagline

Inspired by one of my mother’s superb rhubarb tarts, this week I paid a visit to Roland Newenham at Coolmore Gardens in Carrigaline. Roland is one of Ireland biggest growers of rhubarb, in fact he’s nearly 6’5”! He also happens to have 34 acres of this wonderful dessert vegetable, which is the first tart filling to come into season and one which you can usually expect to have been grown in Ireland. Rhubarb has a long harvesting season, particularly in West Cork, where Roland has a month’s head start on other major growers near Dublin, his first crop arriving at the end of February. He can continue picking until the end of September/early October.


 


Once the plant crown is established, rhubarb is a low maintenance crop that fends off pests, weeds and disease without assistance. Each crown can produce for at least 10 years and so rhubarb is best planted at the end of the garden where it can be left alone. Roland tells me that his rhubarb is all but organic apart from the addition of some nitrogen each year. He covers the plants in straw in January, and this acts as a mulch preventing weed growth and adds nutrients to the soil. The straw covering also has a slight “forcing” effect, encouraging earlier growth. From the end of February, Roland’s team pick the fields in rotation, harvesting from each plant every 6-8 weeks, although he admits he has more planted than he needs “We could get away with 20 acres, but I let it rest longer, that way we’re not pulling the guts out of it”.


 


Roland sells most of his rhubarb to Musgraves via Fyffes (Total Produce) and supplies the whole country in March until the other growers come into crop. He finds the central distribution system very straightforward to work with and also sells leeks and Brussels sprouts in this way. His order comes in each day at 3pm by which time most of it has been picked during the day. He delivers the following morning to the distribution centre in Cork. The rhubarb and other vegetables are on the shop shelves the following day.


 


Daily picking to order like this has great advantages for freshness and wastage, and on the fine balmy day I chose to visit, it seemed a pleasant enough job, but Roland reminded me that his workers are out picking in all weather. And yet his team of 10 seem very content at their work. In fact, 2 of his staff have been with him since 1974 and most of the others since the mid 1980’s. Roland’s commitment to his staff seems his foremost concern. “We can’t pay top dollar but what I can offer is a stress free environment, there’s no-one out there pushing them.”


 


To get the bigger picture on commercial vegetable growing in Ireland I followed up my visit to Coolmore Gardens with a phonecall to the IFA press centre in Dublin where I spoke to PJ Jones, the IFA field vegetable co-ordinator. PJ presented a fairly bleak picture about the pressure that vegetable growers are under in dealing with the retail multiples – “Every week you hear of a new supermarket opening, more and more square footage of retail space, but the population isn’t increasing at that rate. There’s over capacity in food retailing and they are fighting it out with discounts. There’s a lot of talk about food inflation, and the supermarkets have recently accepted increases in the price of milk and wheat, but with vegetables they want to discount the hell out of it. It’s causing us serious problems, we can’t get a price increase and yet we’re hit with the same increases in our costs as other farmers.”


 


It would be easy to think that rhubarb has been a part of our food culture for ever, so incomplete seems the country garden without it. And yet rhubarb only arrived in the 1800s having travelled the Old Silk Road from Asia, where it is not widely eaten but used for its medicinal value. Let’s hope that our retailers behave responsibly and fairly in dealing with our growers or we may have to start trucking rhubarb down the Silk Road again. Of course that rhubarb will be more than 2 days old and not as easy to tart it up!

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Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Spring has finally sprung, there is warmth in the sunshine and life in the fields. The liveliest of springing is from lambs, most of which have been born in the last few weeks. Early lambs, born in January are just reaching maturity now and from this week on Spring Lamb should be available in our local butchers and meat counters. Lamb is my favourite meat, so sweet and flavoursome and along with beef tends to be the best meat we produce in Ireland. I visited Tim Keohane at his farm near Clonakilty to find out a bit more about lamb farming in West Cork and to see what Spring means to him.

 

 

 

Beef is the main income on the Keohane family farm, but in addition to the cattle Tim and his father John have 120 ewes, producing about 200 lambs each year. They are close to finishing lambing and the last few weeks have been the busiest period of the year, during which they’ve had to keep a 24 hour eye on their sheep. Apart from helping with any difficult births, it is also very important to attend to the bonding between mother and offspring. Tim explains that one of the biggest threats to a lamb’s survival is rejection by its mother. This can happen for a number of reasons including if it were to inadvertently suckle from another ewe, which can easily happen when they are inside in close quarters. Rearing rejected “orphan” lambs is a time consuming task that Tim can ill afford and it can be difficult to get them to a good weight in time for market. One solution for orphaned lambs is fostering to another mother by covering the lamb with the afterbirth from a new born at time of birth. The foster mother will be fooled by the smell into accepting the orphan as one of her own. Fostering is also used when the birth of triplets may put too much strain on a ewe and one lamb is fostered out to a mother with a single birth.

 

After a few days inside mother and lamb are released to the grass, so with Tim’s dogs Max and Ben for company we went out to look at the rest of the flock. Ben is semi-retired now having injured his back legs in an accident, but Max was bursting to show what he could do and with a few calmly spoken commands from Tim he brought the flock to us. Tim’s sheep numbers have fallen back a lot from what he used to keep – 500 ewes at one stage, and the profit per lamb is very low, each fetching €70-80 when they are sold in the early autumn. But it was evident from watching Tim work in partnership with the dogs that there’s more to this than money. For me it was a real treat to see a trials standard sheepdog in action and for Tim a source of quiet pride. He and the dogs had been in constant communication since I entered the yard and Tim was particularly conscious of the relationships and hierarchies between the dogs themselves. He told me that he finds the hands on nature of sheep rearing satisfying, if demanding, in comparison with the mechanised business of managing cattle.

 

Raising lambs profitably is very dependent on the markets they find, the optimum being local butchers. Butchers like larger lambs with a bit of fat on them, typically from 45-50kg, whereas factory lambs will usually be sold at a liveweight of 42kg. These lighter lambs suit the supermarkets better and the carcasses do not have as much fat for trimming. Of course individual joints sold in a supermarket are also going to be cheaper simply because they are smaller. Tim remembers when there were up to a dozen butchers buying at Bandon mart, creating a bit of competition and happy to buy larger lambs. But the number of butchers has declined sharply in the last 20 years, falling from 7 in Bandon to 2 now. The trend for buying smaller lambs in supermarkets works against an operation like Tim’s. To service this market profitably a farmer might need upwards of 1000 ewes and be located closer to a main factory, the nearest being in Wexford.

 

Easter came a little soon for Spring Lamb in 2008 but it should be plentiful from the end of March. When it is in season the more delicate tasting Spring Lamb is a delight but do look for meat with a generous coating of creamy-white fat, for which your local butcher is generally the best bet, a conclusion which brings me neatly to my other visit of the week – Michael Twomey in Macroom.

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Piglet at James Ronan's farm near Rosscarbery

Piglet at James Ronan's farm near Rosscarbery

St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon and I’m wondering what we to eat on our national day? What is our national dish? Well, from a radio poll last summer it turns out that Thai Green Curry is the nation’s favorite dish, sorry,  but I can’t accept that and it certainly won’t fit the occasion. I reckon the two prime candidates for a national dish are Irish stew and Bacon and Cabbage and of these the latter is probably far more regularly eaten. I accept that as a national dish Bacon and Cabbage probably doesn’t necessarily represent the pinnacle of our culinary ambitions. We might not choose to serve it to visiting heads of state, but we do relish it in our homes. And for an occasion like St Patrick’s Day, Bacon and Cabbage can be glammed up a bit, to which end the recipe below might be a good start. If I was to follow the line of previous articles featured here I would have headed west to Gubbeen farm near Schull where Fingal Ferguson raises pigs on a modest scale in cosy conditions both outside and indoors. I would have written a story about his passion for quality food and his infectious enthusiasm for the revival of farmers markets and artisan food production. But if I’m honest that’s not the bacon we buy in our house. Don’t get me wrong, Gubbeen bacon is very tasty and when available is not unreasonably priced, but I guess like most people the majority of our food shopping fits into routines. In our house we buy our meat from our local butcher and happen to like the bacon he sells. He buys from a nearby bacon factory, but it doesn’t say much on the label about its origin. To properly explore its place in the food culture of West Cork I needed to find out more and start with talking to a farmer.

 

I decided to find out a bit more about mainstream pig farming in West Cork and paid a visit to James Ronan in Rosscarbery, where he raises pigs from about 200 sows and also milks cows. James developed the enterprise from his father who had started it in the 60s when he brought in pigs for fattening. By Irish standards, James’ pig unit is relatively small – the average herd size in Ireland is 355, which is the largest in Europe. Pig farming at this scale is quite an intensive operation. It requires a rigorous adherence to strict management practices for hygiene, feeding and monitoring as an outbreak of disease in the herd could spell disaster. At the same time the rewards are very low at present. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. Just last month the IFA reported that pigmeat producers are facing an unprecedented crisis, with prices for pig meal having risen by almost 50% in recent months due a world shortage in wheat. This increase has not been offset by a corresponding increase in the price of the meat, which instead has fallen by 8% year-on-year. At current prices producers are likely to be losing about €20 per pig produced. There is a real danger here that pig farming in Ireland be wiped out if this shortfall continues.

 

For now James is fortunate that he doesn’t have all his eggs in one basket and that dairying has picked up. He is also fortunate that he has maintained the enterprise at a level where he and his son can run it themselves, with just one additional worker, and so ride out the tougher times. James is committed to his pig enterprise and at times very active in campaigning on behalf of pig producers, currently chairing the West Cork Pig Producers Group. At the time I visited he was in the middle of setting up a new housing unit that will improve the welfare conditions for his sows. I am glad to see the changes that have been made to improve welfare for Irish pigs and although I feel more could be done, I would not like to see local farmers driven to the wall with even higher costs. The result would be self defeating in that we would simply replace their produce with imports about which we may know or control little in regard to welfare. James shares my fundamental belief in the importance for the nation of producing its own food, likening it to our current insecurity with regard to oil and energy – “I think that food will move up the list of priorities, the food that we eat and the water that we drink are the things that sustain life, not the new cars that everyone is preoccupied with.”

 

James sells all of his pigs to Staunton’s in Timoleague, without which he would have to transport them 4 hours to either Roscrea or Waterford. Amid news of closures of pig processing plants around the country, Staunton’s is a real success story having tripled it’s workforce in the last 4 years on the back of a major investment programme. James attributes this success to very effective management and the long term vision and backing of Barryroe Co-op, the firm’s owners. West Cork has about 13% of the national pig herd, sustaining 240 jobs within the farm gate and up to 1300 at service and processing level. Staunton’s buy about 95% of pigs raised in West Cork and are extremely committed to local farmers. By contrast most of the well established Irish bacon brands import bacon from elsewhere in Europe. James fervently believes that Irish consumers should be given the choice of buying Irish bacon but are being denied this by the major brands that prefer to supplement their supplies with imports when it suits. These brands prefer to promote brand rather than the origin of the meat. “We should let the consumer decide for themselves on quality and value, based on having the full information on the labels. If you don’t know the farm of origin the only way to guarantee that you are buying Irish is to look for the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme mark”.

 

So what’s the status of Bacon and Cabbage as a national dish for St. Patrick’s Day? Well, for now at least we still have Irish bacon and at this time of year we have lovely crisp bright green Savoy cabbage. But if we want to keep enjoying Irish bacon we need to check what we are buying. The Bord Bia mark employs the Irish flag, an appropriate call to action for our national day!

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Paul Johnson, Traditional Meat Co, Dunmanway

Paul Johnson, Traditional Meat Co, Dunmanway

With the first stirrings of spring this week I got an urge to meet some of the new calves that have emerged  blinking into the light on West Cork farms and are waiting to take to the fields.  I paid a visit to Paul and Yvonne Johnson who farm 60 acres at Kinrath, north of Dunmanway, where they  are raising a herd of one of Ireland’s genetic  treasures – Dexter cattle. As it happened Paul’s cows calved in the  autumn and the  calves are quite sturdy now. So I missed the tender early days but the few months that have passed meant that the cows were not at all protective of their young  and quite  comfortable with a stranger in the pen. What struck me most was how much Paul and his cattle enjoy each others company, he knows each by name and seems profoundly relaxed among them. In spite of their long, sharp horns I eventually relaxed too as we drifted from one topic to the next.

Dexters are one of the rare native breeds in Ireland that are now designated as endangered, the list also includes Kerry cattle, Irish Maol cattle, the Irish  Draught horse, the Connemara pony and the Galway  sheep. Some new  life has been breathed into rare breed conservation with the  introduction  of a premium payment for these breeds under REPS (the Rural  Environmental  Protection Scheme) but as Paul pointed out to me the scheme needs  a bit of tweeking to take account of the requirements of individual breeds. Dexters are a hardy breed  of small mountain  cattle, generally black like the Kerry’s with which they are often confued. They can also be red or dun. They originally derived from the Celtic cattle of ancient Ireland and the Dexter breed is particulary associated with Cork. Paul gets some  satisfaction from knowing that he is continuing a tradition with this breed.  Kinrath ringfort on their farm was once a stronghold of the McCarthy clan  that dominated this  part of Munster. When the McCarthys were at the peak of their power, cattle like these were the  backbone of the social, political  and economic structures. Dexters are among the smallest breeds of cattle in the world, and became popular in the 1800s as an  ideal  “cottager’s cow”, producing plenty of milk for the house and a calf to be reared for beef each year. The animals vary in size, but  are about half  the size of a Hereford and roughly one third the size of a Freisen milking cow. They are  enjoying  a resurgence in popularity in the UK and North  America as an ideal  smallholder breed, particularly because of the ease of calving In fact Hugh  Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River  Cottage project on Channel 4 feature’s Dexter  cattle.

 The beef  produced by Dexters is a “traditional”  type, with a greater level of fat  “marbling” than is seen in modern supermarket type of beef. It also tends to be  darker, partially  as result of the breed and partly as the carcass is usually  properly  hung to produce a tender and better flavoured meat. Paul takes his cattle for slaughter

 to the Collins brothers in Dunmanway, where it is subsequently hung for 4 weeks before it is cut, packaged and frozen. Paul then brings the frozen meat back to his walk in freezer. He sells the meat at Bandon Farmers Market from a freezer in the back of his 1950s Land Rover. He finds slaughtering his animals hard and says he needs a couple of days solace after the event, during which time he can be quite irritable.

Raised near Bristol by an Irish mother and an English father, Paul’s passion for the breed began at a rare breed show in the UK where a dream took hold – to raise Dexter cattle back where they originated in Cork. The couple bought the farm in 2000 but found their ambitions frustrated initially by the scarcity of Dexters in the country, none could be found to buy. So they started with Aberdeen Angus and continued looking. Their patience paid off and five years later they managed to buy 7 heifers from a farmer in Kerry. Now the Johnsons have 41 cattle and will continue expanding the herd through breeding and aquisition – most recently buying a bull, 2 cows and 2 calves from a farmer in Newcestown. Paul practices organic farming and is registered with IOFGA. He is very keen to promote and rejuvinate the rearing of Dexters in Ireland and sees their positve impact on the environment as a key advantage. They do not graze in the way most modern commercial breeds do, consuming vast quantities of grass and nothing else, rather they are adpated to foraging and eating a wide variety of plants. This reduces the intensity of demand on a single species and promotes greater biodiversity, allowing other plants, insects and wildlife to thrive.

Paul is deeply committed to the welfare of his animals, spending time with them and farming with his eyes and ears rather than the hard economics of inputs and outputs. For the winter they live in a wonderfully comfortable shed, no slats beneath rather a thick bed of straw that is refreshed twice daily. “I know that when I stop hearing the swishing sound from the straw that it is time for a few more bales”. He manages to finish the animals to a good beef grade without the use of concentrated feeds, using only organic hay that has a rich mix of wild flowers. “They put on weight like this because they are happy.” And it is as clear as day that so is he!

 

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James O'Brien, Valley View Free Range Eggs and Declan Walsh, egg producer

James O'Brien, Valley View Free Range Eggs and Declan Walsh, egg producer

If you’ve been watching Channel 4 lately you can’t have missed the deluge of food programmes that they launched at us with a view to raising awareness and encouraging debate about food production, animal welfare and healthy eating. The strongest point of attack in the Big Food Fight was on intensive poultry production with both Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rounding the guns on battery egg production and industrial chicken rearing practices. I found Jamie Oliver’s conclusions particularly pragmatic and felt that they showed some understanding of the plight of the farmer. His basic plea to consumers was to pay for as much welfare as they feel they can afford. He urged leadership on the part of supermarkets and regulators to ensure not just urgent action but that the costs are not all lumped on farmers, who have to take the price they are given. If change is too swift then it will destroy the production base and we’ll end up relying on imports. That said battery egg production in particular looked awful, half a dozen birds crammed into a tiny cage with no floor just wire. Their beautiful red feathers are gradually shorn from their necks, wings and backs by the wire until after 10 months of laying an egg a day they are pulled out half bald and sent for pulping. They can do nothing but eat, drink and lay eggs – nothing that could constitute the “freedom to express normal behaviour”, which is one of the five freedoms in animal welfare.

 

 

 

Having ably demonstrated some of the more distasteful and cruel practices employed in poultry farming Jamie confronted both industry representatives and the supermarket chains to get a response. Essentially change is coming, battery cages as we know them now will be outlawed by the EU in 2012, what will replace them is unclear, most likely some kind of “enriched” cage, with perches and a scratching area. However, some of the supermarkets will have removed battery eggs from their shelves well before then – Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in particular giving assurances of urgent action to Mr Oliver.

 

Having watched Jamie’s Fowl Dinners I was more convinced than ever, but I was still a bit unsure about what exactly free range means, he was a bit light on details in this regard. In the back of my head are comments how there’s free range and free free range, which presumably means the real diehards are still driving to a woman out the country and bringing their own cartons. Should I be doing this too I wondered? So this week I paid a visit to James and Mary O’Brien at Valleyview Free Range Eggs in Bandon. James and Mary established their business producing and selling free range eggs in 1985 with just 200 birds. When they started up free range was a tiny niche in the egg market and it was a struggle to get the supermarkets to stock them. There was relatively little interest in and value on bird welfare and paying a premium for eggs was generally considered an expensive luxury. By contrast my local Supervalu now has over 60% of its egg space devoted to free range – a good indication of market share. Sadly, I know that this is not the full story as it ignores eggs used in ingredients and restaurants, most of which are from battery hens and most of which sneaks under the radar of conscience. In fact 68% of laying hens in Ireland are still kept in battery systems.

 

So what does free range mean anyway and should we really be looking for “free” free range? Well, to further my education James took me to one of his suppliers – Declan Walsh near Ballinascarthy. Declan keeps 4,000 free range hens a typical sized unit for Irish producers nowadays and operates under the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme. In the UK 18,000 would be considered average. The Irish regulations state that hens must have continuous day time access to open-air runs on ground which is mainly covered with vegetation. The maximum stocking density is not greater than 1,000 hens per hectare of ground available to the hens and the land must be dedicated to the free range flock, so no other animals can graze it. The hens must be accommodated in a well constructed insulated house with a floor space of one square metre per seven birds. The hens on Declan’s farm were in great form – the temporary lift in the weather surely helping. They were outside picking around in the grass and scratching for whatever it is that so obsesses them. There appeared to be plenty of social interaction and both their feathers and curiosity were well intact. James told me that as a farm enterprise, free range egg production stacks up pretty well. He currently has 4 West Cork farmers supplying him and he is always ready to take on new local suppliers. The return on an initial investment of between €250,000 and €500,000 compares favorably with other land use options.

So what of the woman out the country and free free range? What also of the unstamped eggs sold at markets or in small shops? Well, all I can say is that if you’re sure of what you’re getting then you don’t need me telling you anything. But if you’re not sure, then could you be getting repacked eggs that are not free range at all? I have looked at what the Bord Bia Quality Assurance definition of free range is and I am satisfied that this is a tight system with excellent traceability and welfare regulations that are high by international standards. There may be other definitions of hen heaven but if like me you’re buying well down the food distribution chain then regulation and supervision is needed. And if good farmers are going to have a chance of making a living whilst maintaining decent welfare then there needs to be a level playing field where you get what it says on the carton.

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