Postcards from the Edge: ‘We must re-learn the skills to grow our own food’

In our continuing ‘Postcards from the Edge’ series, Aisling Wheeler, a small food producer in Kilfenora, hopes that a silver lining to the coronavirus cloud will be a realisation that Ireland has a food security problem, and hopes the new enthusiasm for gardening will translate into more community farms, fewer imports, more biodiverse agriculture and more people skilled in how to produce food.

I started learning how to grow my own food 16 years ago, mainly because I was concerned about climate change and food security. I was aware of how, as a society, we were losing our basic food production skills and I wanted to be one of the people passing on those skills. In 2011 my partner and I bought a small-holding near Kilfenora with the intention of meeting some of our own food needs and starting some kind of food business.

We have planted hundreds of trees, including apple, cherry, plum and nut trees. We keep poultry for meat and eggs and grow many of our own vegetables. Everything is done by hand, with no machinery, fossil fuels or synthetic fertiliser, and no herbicides or pesticides. Recently I have started experimenting with grain-growing.

In 2015 I started ‘Clare Farm to Fork’ to sell our surplus fruit, vegetables, eggs and plants at markets, through farm-gate sales and online. Small-scale production is uncompetitive and ill-suited to the food retail system, so our focus has been on high nutrition and environmental standards, with the intention of being ready to scale up if food imports were disrupted.

The reasons I had in mind were more climate related – droughts in Spain or flooding in China could lead to higher prices and less availability worldwide. I hadn’t anticipated a global pandemic, but the same principle applies – when things go wrong, the best kind of food supply chain is a short one.

The vital skills we have lost
It’s not so long since food production in Clare was almost entirely local. A typical Clare person born before 1960 could kill and pluck a chicken; grow, harvest and store vegetables, milk a cow and make butter; and grind grain to make bread. A smaller, but significant number could kill and butcher a medium-sized animal such as a pig or goat and, crucially, select and save seed for next year’s crop. If they couldn’t do these things themselves, everyone certainly knew dozens of people who could. These days, most people wouldn’t know where to start.

Irish agriculture is, of course, still an important part of our economy and way of life. However, it is so specialised now, that most farmers produce only meat or milk, and mixed farming is a thing of the past. Between 1916 and 2010, the area used to produce potatoes and oats in Ireland dropped by 90%. The skills and knowledge required to produce those crops, and many others, were built up over many generations, and lost in just two.

I really hope this pandemic makes more people realise we need mixed farming to be the farming of the future too. Roughly 80% of the meat and milk produced on Irish farms is exported, and pretty much everything else we eat is imported. Whereas 50 years ago Irish wheat was milled and baked to make our bread, today our wheat and barley is used almost exclusively for animal feed, and all our flour is imported. It is rare to see Irish fruit and vegetables for sale. We spend €100 million on apples each year, 95 per cent of which are imported.

Since the pandemic took hold in February I have been inundated with calls, emails and texts from friends asking for advice on growing vegetables or keeping chickens at home. I have posted seeds out to about 60 people around the country who weren’t able to buy seeds online, as seed suppliers were inundated with orders. It has brought home to me how fragile our food supply system is and how deskilled we have become.

My good friend Eanna Byrt has just set up a new company, Clare Local Delivery, a sort of online farmers’ market – local produce is delivered to your door every Friday. We’re selling our eggs, vegetables and plants this way, and it’s a lot more convenient than doing a market, as we only need to harvest what is ordered, resulting in less waste. They are delivering in North Clare, with the intention of expanding it countywide.

The scramble for seeds 
Disconnected from our food supply, disempowered by lack of practical skills, disenfranchised by lack of access to affordable land and housing, we are more and more dependent on a handful of corporations for our basic sustenance. Covid-19 has thrown this into sharp relief, hence the scramble for seeds.

Ability to generate profits – not necessarily profits for farmers – is the only criterion successive governments have applied to our agricultural system. But what about food security, local employment and basic skills?

I’m hoping the silver lining to the coronavirus cloud will be the realisation that we have a national food security problem, and that the current enthusiasm for gardening will translate into more community farms, less imported food, more biodiverse agricultural systems and more people skilled in the basics of food production.

Government policy must focus on food security and soil fertility. This will also benefit human health and biodiversity. This year it’s a global pandemic, but undoubtedly the future will bring climate-related disasters that will affect our food supply. Let’s hope we’re ready.

Aisling Wheeler has a small-holding near Kilfenora and is an environmental campaigner. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of all of Clare PPN.

We’d like to hear from you! Back to normal or time for radical change? We’re asking people for their views (in less than 350 words) on how to move forward together in Clare in the wake of Covid-19. You can win a €50 restaurant/take-away voucher. Details of how to submit here: http://clareppn.ie/what-do-we-want/

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