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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.