Welcome to my blog

I like to know if anyone is looking at my blog so please comment, if you can think of something, to say or e-mail me at madsmckeever@eircom.net

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Small holding v farming

I have slightly mixed feelings about curating the Smallholders Ireland Twitter account. What I don't like about it is something I really don't like in myself. It is a class/race thing.

I don't think any Irish farmer likes being called a smallholder, because it is a lesser sort of being than a farmer. We never had a 'Smallholders Act' like they had in England, instead we had land reform that turned tenant farmers into land owners. There is huge pride (and snobbery) attached to land ownership. The class system in Ireland is perhaps more fluid than in the UK but it is still attached to wealth, landownership and from time immemorial, to cattle.

Cattle are so much part of our psyche that the word for road, 'bothar' means cow track, and the word for boy, 'buchaill' means cowboy. Most northern Europeans have a history of cattle farming and perhaps it has made us the bullies we are internationally.

My grandfather Sam McKeever  described himself as  framer's son on the 1901 census form. He was 19 at the time, and in his older brother's house. His brother described himself as a 'grazier'.  Later he rented a farm, and started to buy out the lease, a job my father finished. The point I am making is that most farmers rented their land from the 10,000 or so, big estates, until the 20th century.
My great grandfather describes himself as grazier and cattle salesmaster in 1911

I am the last of my immediate family still farming. Giving up my milking cows in 1999 was like a bereavement. I still keep a few beef cattle although it makes very little financial sense, but I cling onto them for sentimental reasons.

I believe the future of my farm and of all  farming in Ireland will not include so many cattle, and will become more plant based, but it will be hard to take the cowboy out of the Irish farmer and replace it with a grower of crops. I also think the future of farming everywhere will be in smallholding. I would like to see a world where most people had a green patch they enjoyed, and supplied them with at least some of their food, and that the rest could be supplied by small farmers who could make a living doing what they enjoy.

So, for this week, I will embrace my inner smallholder, and share it with you.

farmer A person who owns or manages a farm.
smallholding An agricultural holding smaller than a farm.

grazier A person who rears or fattens cattle or sheep for market. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

When Valentine's Day Crops Up

I really want to write about The Organic Seed Alliance conference as Mum I are here now and we’re so full of ideas and excitement, but i don’t feel like it’s romantic enough for the month that’s in it. So, instead, I’m going to do a Valentine's day special. I’ll get back to the real seedy business next week. Time. I should probably say next time. I couldn't possibly commit to a blog a week (everyone on Facebook is getting married and having babies and I can't commit to a blog a week. Sigh). 

Once upon a fairly embarrassing time, I started seeing a nice local lad. You know West Cork lads, fierce West Cork, I don’t know how else to explain it. It was all going well, for a West Cork type (I wonder if I could somehow insert “West Cork” into every sentence, it looks like it), he took me on quite impressive dates; a play, a gig, dinner, you know, not like driving around Skibbereen in a Honda Civic pulling up next to other similar cars at petrol stations. 
I had and still have the distinct feeling that dating has lost all of its fun. It’s all: “don’t text him until three days after you see him” and “talk to her friend and ignore her”. Basically, if you like them at all, act like you don’t (of course)! That will provoke feelings of insecurity and encourage them to feel bad about themselves and then they might consider being with you. Even when I speak to my male friends about crushes, the advice I get is, in short, to act like I don’t like them. I don’t want to partake in that. So in this particular instance, in an attempt to make it all fun and more “yes, I do like you” (I really liked him), and what with it being Valentine’s day and all, I decided to buy him a present, a fun one. So I got a puzzle specially made which said:

“Roses are red, 
violets are blue, 
      some poems rhyme,
others don’t."
That’s also exactly how it looked (I’m not very creative, thankfully my flare for poetry counteracts that quite well I think), so in the end, the hardest puzzle ever. about 100 pieces, all white with some black lines on it. I broke it all up, popped it into an envelope and dropped it into his work place. 
It went down okay really, after a hard time putting it together, he kind of awkwardly bought me gin or something as a gift back. Nothing too exciting, but fun all the same. In saying that, it didn’t seem to change the nature of the dynamic that much. It was one of those situations where I wouldn’t hear from him very much, vague plans to meet that didn’t happen, you know the way. So once again, I tried a light hearted approach. At this point I could hazard a guess that he wasn’t that interested but figured he was too West Cork to tell me that (for anyone that doesn’t know a West Cork lad, they don’t often posses free flowing, open communication skills). So I thought I’d give him the opportunity to say it in a way that could have been quite lighthearted and inoffensive. I sent a message, a to do list, that went something like this:

Wednesdays to do list:
Buy easter eggs
Fenugreek seed
Find someone else to go on dates with
Put a wash on

At this point I was more or less done, who doesn’t want to date someone that’s a bit more proactive about you than drunken texts and vague plans that don’t happen. But he seemed a bit more proactive after that, texting a bit more and..., oh okay, now that I think about it, nothing else. In hindsight, a few texts isn’t exactly ground breaking is it. I suppose it was wishful thinking, I had the biggest crush on this guy. So I thought, I know, I won’t engage in vague annoying messaging, I’ll get him an easter present instead! I realise I’m going off topic, we’re now on to easter now but it all swings back. 

So, I got a chocolate Lindt bunny, you know the ones? They’re wrapped in gold tinfoil and they have a nice red scarf on with a little bell hanging off it. I then got a nail, heated it, and made a hole in the bunnies neck behind the scarf. I know, proper bunny boiler stuff. I then put a note, through the hole, into the bunny, which said.

Actually, maybe I don’t want to go on a date with somebunny else

Yeah, cringe. 

So in a state of embarrassment I was like, “I better go out tonight so I’m not all like wondering if he got it, why isn’t he texting me”, all that. So off I went, to distract myself. Of course he was there (he’s never there, this was really unlucky). Don’t worry, as I’m sure you’ve gathered I would, I played it cool as a cucumber. So we were having a bit of a chat in the bar and I was like “did you get my present?”. He was like “The rabbit? I thought it was from you but there was no note”. I told him the note was in the rabbit, and he looked quite shocked. But it turns out, he was ever so slightly more shocked than the average man with a bunny boiler on his hands because he had, having not found the note, assumed it was a gift from a weird customer and re-gifted the rabbit (mortified altogether at this point). Yes, he re-gifted it, to his friend's Mum. You might think this is where the story starts to go somewhere or climax but no, thats where it ends. Him and his friend hassled us for the night to try and find out what was in the rabbit. Of course my friends said it was a naked picture for a while. We didn’t tell them and then he stopped talking to me altogether. In fact, if he hasn't read this, he still doesn’t know what the note said. So yeah, unless he’s been having a torrid affair with his friend’s Mum ever since, that was that.

Ye’re like Holly, where is this going, you’ve just mortified yourself. Well Valentine's inspired puns and gifts, that’s where. I just wanted to share, with you all, my inspiration. Crikey, this just started to sound like an acceptance speech for some sort of an award, to clarify, I’ve sold on overall of about, drum roll, five cards. But to take you back to my first blog, I moved home in May to work with my lovely mum, we produce Irish, organic vegetable seeds and people seem to like our gift boxes, so smaller gifts seemed like a nice addition as well as a way for me to home my romantic, Valentine’s inspired genius in on more rewarding things.  Like selling FIVE cards. In addition, this is an attempt to remind myself that romance can be fun (at least, occasionally, in really mitigating circumstances, If you’re outside of West Cork and a lesbian). In a weird world where “The Game” is a best seller, it doesn’t often feel like it.

Sow, let’s all act like we distinctly dislike the person we like this Valentine’s day, OR,  lettuce all tell someone we like, THAT WE LIKE THEM. I know, revolutionary! and if, for some weird reason you want to say it with seeds, now you can. I sense that my story isn’t exactly inspirational and that there’s an argument there that says something about reverse psychology that goes something like “Yeah Holly, that makes sense but we all want what we can’t have at the end of the day, it’s just human.” But that kind of depends doesn’t it? For example, if I want chocolate, it doesn’t matter if someone is letting on that I’m not going to get any or if it’s just there, available on a table, being forced on me by someone’s Granny or something. I still want it because I like it. And like, realistically, if someone doesn’t fancy you as much as they do a piece of chocolate, you’re potentially better off without that. 
No to drunken texts and all that annoying dating stuff and hello to fun and flirting and liking each other, that’s what I say. So, here they are. A card and a relevant packet of seeds is 4.99 and can be purchased on our website here. Here is a poem I wrote, as a sort of introduction.

P.S. According to wikipedia, the author of The Game got dumped for Robbie Williams.

Happy Valentine’s Day,


Words can’t describe my feelings for you 
so these seeds will have to do. 

When Valentine’s day crops up
I barley know how to turnip. So,

This thyme I’ll try to perswede you
to peas be mine

because you make my heart beet, I thought I’d try something a bit corny
but sweet

I know it may seem like shallots
200 carrot to fill pots

But I leek you a lot
and think that you’re radishingly hot

It’s chard to imagine that I could fit the bill 
cause you’re kind of a big dill

I’ve bean thinking you might squash my dream
so peas!

Lettuce not courgette

That words can’t describe my feelings for you 
so I hope these seeds will do. 

This poem can also be purchased with a gift box containing 12 packets of seeds (needless to say): barley, turnip, thyme, swede, peas, sweet corn, carrot, chard, dill, beans, squash, lettuce and courgette for €30.00.

"Just a sweet, kind of corny way to say, Happy Valentines Day" and a packet of Golden Bantam Sweet Corn seed
"I was going to buy you flowers, then I thought, grow them yourself." and a packet of Sweet Pea seed
"Basically I think you're a hottie" and a packet of mixed chilli seed
"Lettuce be more than friends" and a packet of mixed lettuce seed

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My name is Holly…..

My name is Holly, so maybe it’s not massively surprising that I am a botanist’s daughter. Since I came home to work on the farm and in our family business, Brown Envelope Seeds, I have met three people, through work, who have daughters named Holly. One of them was the head of Organics in the department of Agriculture, Frank Mackan. He came to speak to my class (I’m doing a masters in organic horticulture because I still get confused between parsnips and turnips and I’m meant to be the future of Irish seed production). It was good to hear him, he was very to the point if you get me, he didn’t fluff up his sentences with nice words, it actually almost sounded like all the words he did say had full stops after them. But some things he expressed stuck with me. He didn’t preach the usual sort of floaty organic stuff, he said that he thinks organic methods are liberating, a farming system that doesn’t relying on any external inputs to function. How true. How empowering. He emphasised the importance of knowing what it means personally, to each of us as it’s something we will always be questioned on and well, argued with about if we are a part of the industry. That’s when I realised, for one, wonderful, I’ll have to be defensive now until I die, and two, I didn’t know, that’s just how I was raised. Much like a “Christian” who eats meat on good Friday and has sex before marriage with their neighbours wife, but like, still goes to church on Christmas day and would like baptise their kids or whatever. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about conventional farming, organic farming and everything in between. So yeah, anyway, this is apparently a thing, foody/horticultural people do, they name their daughters Holly. I suspect there’s a fair amount of Roses and Poppys and the like too. Get this, my sister’s name is Autumn. She lives in New Zealand now, and when I’m having an emotional day and lecturers keep saying things like “Autumn sowing” and “Harvest in Autumn” I miss her so much I sob inside but pretend that I’m just really into the different pruning techniques for summer raspberries as apposed to Autumn ones. 

So we have an essay title at the moment which is this: 
Critics say that Organic farming systems are unsustainable due to lower yields and cannot feed the world. Discuss. 

This was good food for thought in the vein of finding out what I thought about it all. My initial reaction was “OF COURSE IT CAN THAT’S HOW WE ALL LIVED BEFORE CONVENTIONAL METHODS CAME ALONG AND STARTED RECKLESSLY RUINING THE PLANET AND THE FUTURE OF NATIONAL AND GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY” Of course there are many more aspects to it than that. A lot of the literature points out that our ever increasing population (9 billion by 2050) simply cannot be fed by a system which produces lower yields. This is the framework of the opinion that large scale, high input conventional food production is absolutely necessary. (but 70% of the worlds food comes from small farms?). So you know yourself, a bit more googling. Here’s the thing, 20% of the world is starving (more than 20% are obese?) but 33% of the world’s food goes to waste. 
So yes, if we didn’t waste a third of the food produced no one would be starving. Organic yields are an estimated 80% of conventional ones (depending on the crop, some crops like soya produce higher yields). So even with 80% of the current food outputs, the world could still be fed and it could be fed organically. I think it’s also important to note that this research was sourced using meta analysis, cherry picking from different studies, to compare the two systems which may show bias towards on one side or the other. Results  also changed rather radically when crops were stressed, for example, when exposed to a change in temperature. In these instances, organic crops produced higher yields. 
And sure only a month or so ago wasn’t it all over the news, the climate summit, in Paris. Due to climate change the temperature is expected to rise by 2 degrees**. Agriculture, namely methane caused by ruminants, methane from stored manure, nitrous oxide from soils and farm combustion from fuels, is Ireland’s single largest contributor to the overall emissions at 32.3% of the national total. This along with high stocking rates and other methods adopted by conventional agriculture is damaging soil faster than nature can create it and it is this, precisely, that threatens the future of global food production. So in the face of scarily close climate change which will stress plants, will conventional yields prevail? Previous to the climate summit, Ireland was instructed, by the 2009 European Renewable Energy Directive to reduce GHG omissions by 50%. What happened after that? They removed! Milk quotas. Simon Covney, speaking on Newstalk at the time, described it as “removing the strait jacket from Irish farmers” (shudder). He also told RTE that the increase in herd numbers would happen “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agricultural sector.” Just as well really, when in the words of the Department of Agriculture website, Ireland’s emissions are “the highest of any country in the developed world”. Of course, in effect, the removal of milk quotas was far from maintaining the national carbon footprint as herd numbers increased. The boom in dairy production and beef exports translates as an increase in the national dairy herd by over 300,000 cows in the next five years, simultaneously emissions from agriculture increased by 0.48 million tonnes (2.6%) in 2013, four years after the implementation of the European Union Directive. Needless to say, soil compaction and milk production increased too. So much so, that milk is loosing value faster than hippies are naming their offspring after plants, and is now cheaper than water. I’m going to say that again, milk is now cheaper than water! If you are a dairy farmer or know one, you know how all consuming, painstakingly, tremendously hard it is to be a dairy farmer and their produce is worth more to us than that. I’ve gone off on a tangent now but it all ties in. 

Peak phosphorus is predicted to be between 2010 and 2030. No doubt, NPK will then peak in price too. Farmers won’t be able to afford it, especially if substances that literally fall from the sky are more valuable than their produce. By which point, and already in many cases, their natural eco-systems won’t be in the best nick, what with soil increased compaction from even higher stocking rates and years of spreading synthetic fertilisers which destroy natural bacteria and fungi which exist generously from nature to do precisely what fertilisers do. So sustainable, is defined as, “able to be maintained at a certain level or rate”. Conventional farming is a system which relies on inputs which are running out, that damages the very resources it needs to function, a system surely far from sustainable and I’m being asked to write thousands of words on whether organic farming is sustainable?

The other frequently used anti organic argument is cost. Organic food is more expensive. What a nightmare! Imagine, having to pay more money for food because it was produced without animal cruelty, slave labour and chemical fertilisers, which remove the platform for which future generations need to be able to eat? Like, if that’s the case, if we have to spend, often double the money on a chicken or maybe even a full euro for a head of broccoli, we might not even be able to afford dessert. Just when the first world had really started identifying as an obese one. 
But for a second, lets just entertain the idea of a world that is fed organically. Is it possible that if organic produce supplied more than the current 1%, that with that, might come a bit of competitive pricing like any other industry? and is it potentially true that if the same amount of money, research and employment went into the development of organic fertilisation methods that yields might increase? If organic yields were as high as conventional ones and the organic produce actually sold, we could potentially still afford dessert and regular smart phone upgrades and future generation might be able to survive too. I know it’s annoying, it’s like having to pay the poor old dairy farmers for their milk, you’d swear it were worth it or something. 

So when I stop writing this blog and do something more productive with my time, like I dunno, write my essay, I think rather than discussing whether organic farming is unsustainable due to lower yields and wondering whether it can feed the world or not, I’ll probably focus a bit more on dispelling the myth that hunger in the world is a result of the shortcomings of agricultural outputs and rather, question why are people starving? (potentially something to do with the fertiliser industry providing 24,844 jobs in the US alone) and beg the question, is conventional farming sustainable?

I’ll stop now, mainly because I’m tired but also because I’m putting the pro in procrastination now and should be doing that essay. It’s actually fairly close to the deadline and me and Mum are off to America tomorrow for the Organic Seed Alliance Conference (EEEEK!) I didn’t get a chance to slate Organics yet. Stay tuned for that. Holly

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Dad would be ninety five today. Here is his essay "Managing a Modern Farm"

Marcus McKeever was the third of four boys born to Samuel McKeever and Helena ne Telford. He is the one astride the donkey, with his older brother Dermot (standing) and younger brother Robert, the baby.  This must have been take in about 1925. 

He wrote this essay while at St Columba's college in about 1935 and he was about 15. It was during the 'Economic War'. Times were hard and he left school soon afterwards to come home and work on the farm, which he did until he died in 1978.   I have transcribed it to make it easier to read.

Managing a Modern Farm

Managing a modern farm is a task which is not very hard when times are good but when times are bad and one does not get the prices one expects it is very hard to make both ends meet. When one has a grazing farm only, the chief thing to do is not to mind the prices one is going to get for fat cattle when buying stores, but to restock ones farm with cattle for fifty shillings or so less than the price one got for one's last fat cattle. Some people who have not much capital and want to get into farming on a big scale set three quarters of their land, and stock the last quarter with heifers which will have calves. After one year they only let half of it and after two a quarter and after three none. This is a very slow way as one hardly gets any profit for three or four years because the land is let for very little over the amount of rates and taxes on it.

The most common kind of farm is a mixed farm which is rather harder to farm than a grazing farm. The chief thing is to find which fields are suitable for tillage and which for grazing. The fields which have water on them are generally kept for grazing unless they are on a northerly slope and have a wood on the south side. The rotation for tillage is oats for the first year after a field is ploughed and sometimes a second crop is taken out the following year, but this robs the soil. Wheat may be sown instead of oats but the yield is generally bad.

After a grain crop has been grown for a year or two a root crop is planted, after the ground has been well tilled and fertilized with farmyard manure or chemical manure. The general root crops are turnips potatoes or mangolds. Turnips and mangolds are said to do the land more

good than harm.

After a root crop the land is generally laid down by another grain crop. Barley is the best crop to lay land down with but wheat or oats are also quite good. When wheat is being grown it is generally sown at the end of October, while oats or barley is sown in the spring. In the middle of May a mixture of grass is also sown.  

The grass which is sown is a good meadow in June of the following year and may be mown twice the first year. and once a year for three or four years after. 

After the turnips have been sown it is time to land the potatoes, which has to be done twice or three times and it is well to spray them with bluestone to prevent blight. Then comes a slack time which is generally filled by shearing the sheep.

Then the hay has to be made and the turnips grubbed and thinned. Thinning is generally done by school children in their holidays. When the hay is made there is sometimes a week or two before the harvest in which one can get a considerable amount of hay stacked. 

The harvest is made much easier to manage by the invention of the "Reaper and Binder" which is a great improvement on the old methods. 

When wheat and barley have been cut for a week or so and are fairly well dry they have to be hand stacked. This is not necessary with oats except in a very wet year. After the corn is in and threshed one returns to finish the drawing in of hay. 

In October the potatoes have 

to be dug and anytime after that the mangolds may be pulled, then the turnips. The stubbles and lea have also to be ploughed and ready for sowing.

On all modern farms both horses and tractors are used. The tractors for heavy work and the horses for lighter work. The cheap road taxation on an agricultural vehicle makes a tractor very economical. It is used for ploughing and drawing big loads while a horse is used for harrowing and light carting.

If a man has a dairy farm it is necessary to have some tillage to feed the cows in the winter, if there is no dairy farm cattle are stall fed on the turnips and crushed grain. Straw is used for both bedding and feeding.