Green-fingered urban dwellers are putting farmers to shame
Published 02/09/2015 | 02:30
Farmers call themselves food producers and may feel that we somehow have the monopoly on food production. Yet, when we meet up, how often is food actually mentioned?
Talk about things like grass growth or calving interval or somatic cell counts is more likely.
Farming started out as a way of feeding ourselves and graduated to selling the surplus to generate an income.
But how many farmers today eat any of the food they produce?
Most dairy farmers drive down the road to buy in milk for the family to drink.
Perhaps more to the point, how many produce food to eat?
Contrast this with any lifestyle magazine where there will be a story about some suburbanite, often with no traditional connection to the land and no ready access to it, producing increasing amounts of their own food.
This might involve the keeping of small farm animals and growing their own fruit and veg, in their back gardens or travelling to allotments.
They are putting us farmers to shame.
I was reminded of this recently when I attended a meeting where the general public got to suggest priorities for the Laois local development strategy under the forthcoming LEADER 2015-2020 programme.
Someone suggested "local food production", I was a little taken aback. Why? Because this man is not a farmer.
Rather he has an allotment and is very interested in growing in his own food and sourcing food locally.
He believes this is a good thing, for the health and wellbeing of his family, ditto the financial wellbeing of the local economy and for the environment.
Of course, farmers may point out they are too busy to keep a garden but what about the beautiful floral gardens which are often to be seen around farmhouses, the maintenance of which may require considerable effort and expense.
A few years back, we had a visit from a group of Swiss farmers who were gobsmacked at how few Irish farms had vegetable gardens.
Outside of the floral gardens, many farms have become virtually desertified except for a narrow range of high yielding grasses and crops. The majority have no more than one or, at most, two enterprises. Farms are increasing in size and effectively becoming green factories.
The trees, hedges and the other mixed vegetation that create visual interest and support biodiversity are becoming increasingly rare.
Could we actually be exhibiting the same kind of societal immaturity that pervaded the country at large at the height of the Celtic Tiger; we are dazzled by the brightly coloured and showy flowers, forgetting the adage "handsome is as handsome does".
This is not just about vegetables, but they are a good example because they can be bought so conveniently and cheaply.
First, these vegetables are grown by other farmers. Yet, while we push hard to be paid a decent price for our milk and meat, we may pay a pittance for our veg. In so doing, we compound these supply contracts and moreover set a bad example for other consumers. A minority may argue that they can only afford to pay 9c for a turnip but many others, if they were honest, could readily pay 99c.
Moreover, convenience and financial cost are not the only considerations. There is pride in growing your own foods and health benefits, both physical and nutritional.
Farmers, and I am among them, will often bemoan that children are not as involved as we might wish in the running of farms todays because of the many inherent dangers. Well, few of those dangers are a problem in a domestic garden.
What has brought this to mind at this time is the slide in milk prices over the five months since quotas ended.
This has finally quashed the desperate hope that any form of conventional commodity farming as we know it is ever going to lead to the Promised Land.
Being obedient minions, we have tolerated every fresh move of the goalposts, accepting without question that bigger means better, as if scale was a reward in itself.
However, as one farmer put it recently, "I have more cows, more costs and more work; for the same milk cheque as last year." Who is bigger really better for?
I think a lot of people may see this or at least would see it if they let themselves see it.
But they can't entertain the possibility because they have invested so much both financially and emotionally on a particular path that they refuse to consider the possibility that may not be the best one or even a good one.
I have no doubt that dairying will turn around but how much harm will be done before that happens? Debt will build.
Some businesses and, worse, some families will not be able to withstand the pressure.
Even when this storm passes, increased volatility and generally ever narrowing producer margins will be the new norm for mainstream farm enterprises.
At the moment it is the dairy farmers that are squealing but, if cattle supplies follow expectations, chances are that they are going to be joined or replaced by beef farmers some time next year.
The starting point for most people when they enter farming is a love of the land. For many, this is a long way removed from the realities of farming today and we need to find new ways to fall back in love with the land.