My Week: Andrew Hamilton talks to Declan Walsh
A west Clare farmer who grew cannabis on his land for the first time this year believes that the cultivation of the plant could be the saviour of small rural farmers.
Declan Walsh is the fourth generation of his family to farm their holding in Loop Head, but when he took over the land following his father's passing last year, he faced the real prospect that he would be the last.
In an effort to maintain the farm, he reduced his suckler herd and applied to the Health Product Regulation Authority (HPRA) for a licence to grow cannabis for the production of CBD oil.
He is currently harvesting his first crop and plans to more than double the area planted in 2020.
"I cut down on the number of animals and I decided that I needed to go down a different avenue with the farm. Things have got so bad for beef farmers around the country that I needed to try something different," he said.
"My land is right on the coast and I was worried that it (the cannabis) might not grow, because it is so exposed, but it worked perfectly. It's a very resilient crop.
"This year was a test. I have the acreage to plant more land but I decided to give it two acres this year. I got a licence for one hectare and I grew the two acres. It went well. I'm harvesting at the moment and I am very happy with it."
With help from Clare-based start-up company, Canabaoil Ltd, Mr Walsh planted the finola strain of hemp on his farm this year. He says the plant is well suited to growing on the Atlantic coast but is labour intensive during planting and harvest.
"I had to power-harrow the ground first and I spread the seed by hand, so that was labour intensive," he said.
"When you harvest, you have to separate the male and female plants and there is work in that. The harvesting took me a couple of weeks, working in the evening time.
"If this gets more mainstream it will be easier. There is a seed which just produces female plants and that could be included under the licence. That would take a lot of the labour out of it.
"The drying of it can also be labour intensive. You have to dry it on ropes in a shed. If there was a centralised drying facility for farmers, and they could just bring their produce there, that would take a lot of the labour out of it.
"The crop is organic so there is no spraying or anything like that. It is very strong and overcomes weeds but weeds can be an issue during harvesting.
"I'm not yet sure how it will work out financially this year, I'm in the middle of harvest, but I'd expect to get between €2 and €5 per kilogramme. I'm growing the finola seeds and there are other seeds which are more profitable to grow, but we need them to be included in the licence in the future."
Mr Walsh believes that growing cannabis for CBD oil could be a massive boost for farmers, especially in rural areas, but support needs to come from the government to make it a reality.
"At the moment you only get the licence for one year. If there was a long-term licence it would really entice farmers to get involved," he said. "You can't expect farmers to go year-to-year. It's hard, you are at the mercy of the HPRA, if you could get even a five-year licence, that would be a big help.
"I moved back to rural west Clare and there are more people leaving (rural Ireland) than coming back. Beef farming is on its knees and there are no jobs in the area, something like this could be a massive boost.
"I have acres that can be used for this, other farmers have acres that can be used for this, it is only going to increase jobs and employment. This (CBD oil) is massive in America already and there is going to be a very big market in Ireland.
"It is about time that the Government started investing in rural Ireland. They need to support people who are trying new things and bringing investment to rural Ireland.
"I'm in this for the long haul. New initiatives like this need to be supported; there is no investment in rural Ireland as far as I can see. You should feel that there are opportunities for you in rural Ireland.
"If this business takes off, it could be a massive thing for local farmers. It could keep the place going."
Mr Walsh farms more than 100 acres in the Moveen area, just outside Kilkee.