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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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Stephen O'Donovan, potato grower, Kilcrohane

Stephen O'Donovan, potato grower, Kilcrohane

2008 is the International Year of the Potato and I had been meaning for some time to find out a bit more about potato growing in West Cork. As a food, spuds are particularly bound up with our national food culture though perhaps as much for the tragedy of the famine as for our affection for their taste, versatility and nourishing qualities. Yes, we do like them, but potatoes are largely taken for granted and are overlooked as a topic of conversation apart from the few weeks in mid-summer when the earlies arrive. Then they are burst open in their skins and devoured before the butter has even melted. Well, at least that’s how I remember it, but of course we now have “new” potatoes on the shelf for most of the year. These imposters are tasteless, soapy and not worth bothering with, but their constant availability does steal the thunder somewhat from the real earlies.As with most commercial vegetable growing access to outlets is the key and unfortunately over the last 20 years that access has actually worsened. For a whole host of reasons, to do with scale and systems, it is actually easier for Dutch potato growers to get their product onto Irish supermarket shelves than it is for farmers in West Cork. Growers outside of the greater Cork city area with a couple of acres of spuds face the challenge of having to find and service their own markets. This wasn’t always the case as I found out on a recent visit to the Sheeps Head where I met with Stephen O’Donovan and Jimmy O’Mahony.

Stephen along with his father, Patrick and his brothers, grows about 10 acres of potatoes on a hillside farm above the village of Kilcrohane. They are the largest remaining commercial growers in an area that was once the envy of Ireland for its ability to get finest quality early potatoes out to the whole country. Jimmy, who grows on a smaller scale, told me about the Kilcrohane Growers Co-Op which for almost 15 years up to the late 1980s organized the growing, distribution and sale of potatoes and daffodils from up to 40 farms in the area. At its peak, the co-op would send 30 tonne truckloads of early potatoes every 2 days from its packhouse in Kilcrohane to lucrative wholesale markets in Dublin from where they would be on the shelves the next day. Nearly all the farms in the areas were members and even with a relatively small crop a farmer could access and service markets that weren’t otherwise viable. Kilcrohane has a natural advantage for potato growing being frost free from very early in the year. Getting first to market allows growers to achieve significantly higher prices for the first week or two making the whole operation more attractive.
Without the co-op the only market is a local one. In fact the O’Donovan’s have only one customer – Biggs Supervalu in Bantry, about whom Stephen is very positive. “Since I was this high we’ve always dealt with them, they give a good price and are very loyal.” As we talk it is immediately clear to me that this loyalty and fair play is returned in spades. “All through the summer we dig the potatoes in the evening and drop them in to the shop first thing in the morning. If there are any left from the day before we take them away. Sometimes when there are a lot of people around in the summer we dig at lunch time and drop them in straight away. Our name is stamped on the bag so we’ve got to keep the quality up.” Although they don’t sell at a premium over imports Stephen takes a lot of pride in the quality of their potatoes and is determined not to undermine this. “People often suggest that we get a washer but that would take the quality out of them. We also try to cut the use of fertilizer to a minimum, for the earlies this gives a nice floury potato.”

I left Kilcrohane vowing to either find excuses for regular trips to Bantry during the summer or better still to find out about similarly dedicated early potato growers in my local area. And I’m more determined than ever to hang on an extra few weeks ignoring the temptations flown in from around the world so that I can truly enjoy new potatoes with butter.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

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