I got a letter from Cait Curren, a member of the government's new Organic Focus Group asking for my thoughts on the organic sector. I spent quite a long time drafting my reply, so I thought I would put it here. If you read it, would you let me know in a comment. I have added some pictures of Martin and Yvonne's O'Flynn farm near Kealkil as encouragement to help keep you reading. We had a lovely meitheal there on Sunday
Here are a few of my thoughts on the organic sector, in West Cork. I am involved in organic production on several levels.
1, Education; As part of the West Cork College of Sustainable food production I teach organic horticulture. We also run courses on seed saving, plant breeding and growing staple foods, on the farm here.
2, As Brown Envelope Seeds; We grow a range of vegetable seeds suitable for Irish conditions.
3, I produce organic beef.
Regarding expanding the organic sector, I do not see much scope in meat and vegetables as both are well supplied in this area. There is no incentive for organic beef production as the premium so low and the paperwork and logistics so tricky.
I know most of the organic growers in the area, and from what I can see those making a living are doing so almost entirely in polytunnels, and supplying local markets. There is little room for expansion as we live in a sparsely populated area. Vegetables such as carrots and onions are imported because they cannot be produced as cheaply, on the scale that there is market for them. In other words, to grow them at the price they are being imported for, would require either slave labour, or large mechanised farms. There would not be a big enough market for the produce from large mechanised farms, and we are too far from markets to export them successfully. It is also difficult to produce them from a climatic point of view. Supermarkets prefer to bring in cheaper imported produce, than to sell local produce. There is also strong competition from 'chemical free' growers. Farmers' markets are thriving and along with the hospitality industry, seem to be the main outlet for organic growers, I think there may be scope for expansion nearer Cork city but I cannot see much scope for expansion in vegetable production here unless food prices rise considerably,
However, I do think there is scope for new crops, especially if some research were done on their commercial production.
I believe there is scope for increased seed production of brassicas, beets, parsnip and spinach. These can all be produced outdoors. Indoor production of seed of any vegetable, grown in Ireland, is also possible.
Quinoa is an expensive and useful staple crop. I have been growing it successfully for several years now and as it costs about 6 times the price of wheat. Although there are some problems with harvest and processing, I don't see them as insurmountable.
I notice that whole food shops sell very little Irish food, often ordinary things like wholemeal flour and oats are imported, because they are cheaper than Irish products. Perhaps the focus group could work out why this is the case. Other products like linseed, coriander seed, and vegetable oil could easily be produced here if connections were made between farmers and wholesalers.
West cork has a history of hemp and linen production. If the price of fibers rose it would be an excellent area to produce them.
With considerable amounts of poor quality timber in the area, there is scope for biochar production. This could lead to lower imported inputs into conventional and organic agriculture.
Large numbers of non food garden plants are imported and could be grown here, however this is not an area in which I am informed.
Organic flower production needs to be researched, at current prices of imported flowers, it wold probably be hard to compete, but daffodils have been produced here in the past and there is no reason why flowers cannot be produced all year round in polytunnels, but this would probably be easier close to significant population centres. Again this is outside my area of expertise.
Education in schools
I believe the organic focus group should be working to get people growing their own food, where possible, rather than trying to create jobs.
This can be done by ensuring skills are learnt at a young age by introducing a food course in schools. Children can be taught how to grow and cook their own food. The leaving cert agriculture curriculum needs a major overhaul, (unless that has happened in the last couple of years). I was appalled by the narrowness of it when my daughter did it in school, There was almost nothing about horticulture, nothing at all about agriculture outside of Ireland, and I don't think there was any mention of organic farming either.
Third level education
West Cork is already a centre of horticultural education with the several colleges providing Fetac courses such as Rossa College in Skibbereen, which delivers a Fetac level 5 course.
Kinsale college of further Education offers a Fetac level 5 permaculture design course which includes a FETAC level 5 horticulture qualification.
The introduction of a Masters degree course in organic horticulture at Lissard in Skibbereen and the introduction of a degree course in horticulture at CIT are positive developments in this area. The addition of an organic degree qualification in CIT would be welcomed. The practical part of the CIT horticulture course is run at Clonakilty agricultural college.Agricultural research university
An agricultural research university, where organic and conventional agriculture can be compared in terms of cost, labour, and inputs and outputs, is badly needed.
Research into nutrient conservation and recycling methods, such as no-till agriculture, biochar applications composting and recycling sewage and municipal waste needs to be done.
Most certified organic compost is imported into Ireland. Research into, and support for the production of certified organic compost for growers is needed.
Research into new crops needs to be carried out.
A plant pathology lab where growers can bring get problems diagnosed and solutions suggested and also receive training could be established.
Participatory plant breeding programme
A participatory plant breeding programme for resilient crops, capable of adapting to climate change, and to Irish conditions is vitally important. This programme would include scientists, plant breeders, famers and agricultural advisers in developing new crops and new varietes for 21st century agriculture, in Ireland.
All these areas of research would be as relevant to conventional agriculture as organic.
I believe Clonakilty Agricultural college is ideally placed to fill this need. In conjuction with UCC and CIT, Teagasc could expand into these areas of research and training. It is an ideal site for this research facility. It has 140ha of excellent agricultural land, and superb teaching facilities, and student dormitories, canteen etc.
The organic sector is naturally placed to improve national food security, Incentives to grow staple foods for people instead of animals are needed, New crops that can become part of our staple diet need to be researched. It is very dangerous from a food security point of view to be depending on imported potatoes, wheat rice and pasta for our main calorific intake.
Another food security danger is the high dependence of Irish agriculture on inputs like fossil fuels, seed, and machinery.
Seed security could be achieved through the establishment of regional seed banks, at least one in every province.
Availability of land
A major constraint on organic horticulture is access to good land. Many of the best growers are producing food on the worst possible land. Making land available to local food initiatives needs to be done. A tax on the sale of agricultural land for development could be used to set up new entrants into horticulture, on suitable land, near centres of population. Unused development land owned by councils should also be made available. Penalties to councils who do not supply allotments where there is a demand should be imposed. Councils should be empowered to buy agricultural land at agricultural land values where necessary, for allotments.
Organic farmers and growers have a real image problem to overcome in Ireland. Conventional farmers see them as critical of their produce and consumers see the produce as expensive, and are not easily convinced of its superior qualities. Education and publicity are needed to clarify what organic means because most people don't really know.
Farm Apprentice Scheme
A farm apprentice scheme would be really useful, I think students should visit farms more than once in a year so that they get a realistic view of the year round workings of a farm. Urban leaving cert Ag science students should have access to working farms, a scheme where school children could learn about farming in the same way as they are immersed in Irish college, could be established. A financial incentive for the host famers would help.Marketing Structures
The developemnt of Farmers' markets depends on legislative clarity. There is constant confusion around market rights, the casual trading act and the new EU local government legislation. This prevents producers from participating in markets and entrusting their livelihoods to them. There is a social stigma attached to market trading which also limits their development. Co-operatev marketing of horticultural produce does not seem to work very well. I was involved in the West Cork Growers co-operateve which collapsed about 15 years ago. I would not be rushing into joining another one.Horticultural Development officer
A horticultural development officer would be useful to connect growers and potential growers to training and apprentice schemes and to identify the needs of suppliers and consumers of organic produce. Such a person could establish the seed needs of the organic horticulture sector by establishing on farm variety trials, publishing results and coordinating seed producers and growers.In conclusion
Although horticulture is marginally profitable in this area due to stiff competition from imports, tough climatic conditions, and a small market, the future may bring new opportunities and incentives. With current world population growth, the peaking of agricultural land, and fossil fuels, the price of food is increasing and the euro is devaluing. Increasing food and fuel prices and devaluing of the euro will be good for local production. The fostering of basic skills at primary and secondary level would allow for a fast expansion in production if the economic conditions for horticulture improve.
A legal frame work allowing access to land to new entrants into horticulture needs to be in place, for when that takes place.
A research facility, would have many benefits, such as developing new crops and varieties for Irish conditions. It could also develop methods of minimising the needs for agricultural inputs, through recyling of nutrients, new growing techniques and soil additives such as biochar. This research would benefit conventional agriculture as much as organic.
Both the organic and conventional agriculture is at risk from the break down of input supply chains, due to economic chaos.
Fuel, seeds and other inputs, most of which are imported, should be stockpiled or produced at home. Any development of the organic sector should encourage the production of these inputs.Madeline McKeever
tel 028 38184
On 23 Jul 2012, at 11:07, Cait Curran wrote: