Learning from Irish farms

IMG_4777With stone walls and grazing cattle, Irish farms look like tourist attractions, but farming is still serious business here.

Imagine being paid to maintain fragile land as permanent pasture. Imagine a farm subsidy program designed to support young farmers, small farms and organic farms. Imagine a farm program that declares that 30 percent of direct payments are conditioned on compliance with “greening” criteria, such as crop diversification and crop rotation. All that is part of Ireland’s agricultural economy, where agriculture and food produce 25 percent of the country’s export earnings.

I grew up on a farm here in Minnesota, which has been in my family since 1875. I love our farm, and am glad it is under the careful stewardship of my brother. Though I no longer live on a farm, I still love that piece of land, and still care deeply about the health of land and water. So when I visited Ireland, I talked to people about the stone walls and the sheep and cows and locally sourced goat cheese and bacon.

Most farming in Ireland is small farming, supported by subsidies that recognize the value of farming as a green collar job, preserving the natural heritage. The whole country is about one-third the size of Minnesota, with a population not quite as large as Minnesota’s. The land is not the deep, rich loam that Minnesota and Iowa farmers grow corn on. Grazing and pasture are best uses for more rocky, shallow soil, with cattle and sheep occupying lots of hilly terrain. Such fragile land would be easily destroyed by row-cropping or careless practices.

In some areas, farmers are forbidden to clear rocky fields, which are protected as part of the natural and cultural heritage. Since that’s an economic burden to the farmer and an environmental and cultural benefit to the country, farmers are paid to keep the fields in their historic condition.

In some places, piled-up rocks make walls between the fields and along the roads. It’s all picturesque, but also eminently practical. Rock walls keep in cows, sometimes with the addition of an electric fence strung along the inside. They divide fields into small plots, with cows moving from one to another, rotating grazing through the year.

Farms are smaller in Ireland, averaging about 80 acres. Ireland’s 139,000 farms outnumber Minnesota’s 81,000 farms by a wide margin, even though Ireland has less than one-third the total land area of Minnesota and a smaller population. As in Minnesota, many farmers have off-farm jobs to supplement their farm income, and the number of farms is falling as size is rising. But in Ireland, official farm policy supports small farmers, young farmers beginning their careers, and specific conservation programs for areas like the Burren or specific practices such as organic farming. In contrast, most U.S. farm subsidies go to large, single-crop operations — corn, soybeans, sugar, cotton, wheat — that are hard on the land.

Beef is big business in Ireland, though beef are grown on relatively small and often diversified farms. According to a 2010 government report, “Ireland in 2011 exported in excess of 90% of its net beef output, making it the largest beef exporter in the EU and fourth largest in the world.”* Even McDonald’s in Ireland brags about sourcing all of its beef from sustainable farms. According to the Irish Examiner, that means 7,000 farms.

Though the Irish dairy sector is big and growing, the average herd size is 70 cows. Compare that to the mammoth, several-thousand-cow dairy operations that have taken over the U.S. and Minnesota dairy industry, driving small dairy farmers out of business. Dairy cows in Ireland mostly live on pasture and frequently rotate from one pasture to another. “Grass is precious here,” one Irishman told me, and much of the farmland is in grass, both for pasture and for hay. In contrast, cows in big U.S. dairy operations live in barns and eat grain and hay that is grown on other farms and shipped in.

Irish agriculture has a very small grain sector (“cereal” in Irish reports), because most land is not suited to row crops. Both targeted subsidies and strict environmental rules protect land from destructive farming practices. In contrast, as Bloomberg Business News reports, the U.S. farm program “incentivizes farmers to cultivate marginal acres that may or may not be fertile.”

As in Minnesota, Ireland has a strong and growing local food movement. Locally sourced food and inspired cuisine was everywhere. Restaurants posted lists of farms where they got goat cheese or bacon or beef. Some grew herbs and lettuce and vegetables in their own gardens and poly tunnels.

U.S. poet/philosopher/farmer Wendell Berry has written eloquently about the need for localizing agriculture and stewardship of the land:

“… if you’re going to have sustainable agriculture, it has to be adapted locally. Local adaptation means that you observe in the economic landscape the same processes that you find in healthy natural landscapes: You must have diversity. You must have both plants and animals. You must waste nothing. You must obey the law of return — that is, you must return to the ground all the nutrients that you take from it. You must protect the soil from erosion at all times. You must make maximum use of sunlight.”

All of this, Berry writes, is “dependent on the scale of the endeavor not being too large, and on a proper ratio between the amount of land needing care and the number of caretakers.”

We need to learn from Ireland, or recover what we once knew, about the value of small farms and careful stewardship of the land.

* Irish government figures on beef exports are not consistent with other sources — but all of those sources are also inconsistent with each other in various ways. See here and here and here.

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