From famine-stricken war zones to farming pedigree Dexter cattle in West Cork

Meet the doctor whose blueberry farm is based on more than a taste for muffins

Dr Steve Collins on his farm near Bantry. Photo: Denis Boyle
Dr Steve Collins on his farm near Bantry. Photo: Denis Boyle

Sam Wheeler

When you've spent most of your working life in Third-World war zones at the front line of the global battle against famine, the issues facing Irish farmers can appear first-world problems.

Dr Steve Collins, though, is farming his 140 acres of marginal mountainous land on the Cork-Kerry border with the same boundless enthusiasm, innovation and intellectual rigour with which he has been battling starvation in Africa since the mid-80s.

English-born Steve, who has a herd of pedigree Dexter cattle and a burgeoning blueberry business, isn't just a footsoldier of the aid-work world - he is one of the top brass. A qualified medical doctor with an additional PhD in nutrition, he devised a model for treating famine-hit communities that has been adopted in 60 countries worldwide. In 2001, he was awarded an MBE for services to humanitarianism.

He is still the chairman of a charity Valid Nutrition, and runs Valid International, a research and development consultancy. His expertise is in demand across the globe, but he is committed to making a success of his farm in Derry Duff. He bought the property with his wife Claire in 2005 when he was feeling "a bit burnt out" from battling the "bureaucracy and vested interests" as much as from the actual suffering.

Explaining his move to the wilds of West Cork - the nearest shop is 15 minutes' drive away - he explains: "I'd spent 30 years treating people on the point of death, I'd seen a lot of death, lot of war, lot of famine. It's very difficult to bounce between war and famine, and normal life.

"When you're dealing with someone who has just seen all their children die of starvation, and you come to Dublin, and someone is complaining because their new Merc has got a scratch on it… I mean, if you have a new Merc, it's quite legitimate to complain if it gets scratched, but it's very difficult to move between that and starvation. So I moved down here to be far away from that, so I didn't have to be confronted by that."

Although he doesn't have a farming background, and he hasn't been to agricultural college, the 56-year-old launched himself into his new enterprise with a can-do attitude and a scientific approach.

"I'm winging it," he grins. "I talk to people. Scientific method takes you a long way - when you don't know things, you try things out, you work out what works and what doesn't. It's about not being afraid to fail.

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"It was the same with the aid. I developed a model to treat mass starvation, because when I failed - I caused a cholera outbreak - I was open about it. I published the results of what I'd done wrong and really analysed it. In farming, we have a go; if it goes wrong, look at why it went wrong. I don't just go 'well, it wasn't my fault'. You look at why, what you could have done differently."

Steve has chosen his projects carefully. He didn't just opt for Dexters (whose meat he sells to high-end retailers such as Mannings Emporium, a deli in Ballylickey), because they look cute, or blueberries because he likes muffins.

"I picked a breed that was easy," he says of his 55-strong herd of dwarf cattle. "Dexter were bred in Munster, they are adapted to the hills and the bog, they are very low-maintenance - they calve themselves. I'm ranching more than farming. They are up in the mountain all year - I've got no sheds. Obviously it's a learning curve, but the medicine helped. The basic principles of animal health are the same as human health, so the veterinary is fine. I very rarely get the vet out."

The nutrition side has also helped, leading Steve to his drought-busting sprouting machine. His understanding of soil health - which he likens to finding the right microbial balance in the gut - drew him to blueberries. That and the low price of beef, even for the highest-quality produce.

Steve Collins with his wife Claire and children Sean, Cara and Conor. Photo: Denis Boyle
Steve Collins with his wife Claire and children Sean, Cara and Conor. Photo: Denis Boyle

"Farming cattle, unless you've got a really intensive set-up - big fields, mechanised, loads of big sheds to put them in in the winter - you're never going to make money," says the father of Sean (8), Cara (7) and Conor (5).

"I can turn over about €20,000 on the whole farm in cattle. Because the cost of food is so low - you can get s**t beef really cheap, farmers round here can't compete with that. If you've got really good land in the midlands, then maybe. But not here.

"So I've cut down on the Dexters, I'm focusing on the blueberries. I was looking at what would work, and I found out that blueberries grow really well in marginal, acidic soil. And they like a lot of water. They don't mind the cold in the winter. The temperatures are good for them.

"I'm putting in 8,000 plants over six or seven acres. There's a lot of work - you've got to put windbreaks in, raised beds, irrigation, fertigation. There's quite a lot of up-front costs, and a long lead-time. I started in 2014. I had to import the plug plants, and I won't start selling until next year. So there are uncertainties about it. But I did a market research study with Tralee IT - focus groups etc. I know there's a good market, good prices. I reckon I can get 20-30 tonnes. Blueberries are massively popular. I can turn over more with one field of blueberries than I can with the whole farm of cattle. I'm applying for a grant for a processing plant."

Steve points out that the adverse effects of climate change are already beginning to bite, and he is a big advocate of diversification. He and Claire also have apple orchards and a plant nursery; they sell innovative plant pots, run farm tours and are starting Airbnb at the home they designed themselves and which they played a major part in building, having lived in an old site cabin for eight years during the construction.

With traditional farmers getting squeezed harder by falling grants and produce prices, as well as weather events, Steve recommends branching out, although he warns that "the grant system doesn't encourage people to take risks and try new things because it supports non-sustainable ways of doing things". And he is aware that as an "outsider" - albeit the grandson of a Corkman - he can't be too preachy.

"I'm always going to be an outsider, but I'm used to that!" he says. "But if you deal with people well, people respond to that. Gradually, people see, well, he might be an English dreadlocked hippie or whatever, but actually he deals with us all right. And because I do things a bit differently, I get a load of people visiting the farm. Farmers are conservative by nature, but they do know that things are changing, they do know that bad years are coming more often, that grants are going down. They're not stupid, they are thinking, what are we going to do?

"People are watching what I do, seeing if it works. You never know - in 15 years' time, you could have a lot of people growing blueberries here.

"I really think that's going to work. The signs are really encouraging."

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Sprouting machine can help solve fodder crisis

Dr Steve Collins reckons future fodder crises can be mitigated by using some of the principles that have saved millions of lives in Africa.

Steve is one of the few farmers in Ireland to use a sprouting machine, a 20ft-long insulated container that turns grains into more digestible sprouts which he feeds to his cattle, instead of ration or silage.

Steve has data to show that sprouted grain is a "more cost-effective" way of feeding cattle; it is also "a fail-safe" against extreme weather events such as drought and flooding.

The science, he explains, is that cows and other livestock evolved to eat grass and aren't adapted to eat grain - they can't access all the nutrients which are locked into storage compounds in seeds.

"When you sprout a grain, it activates its own enzymes and breaks down these storage compounds to make them available for the plant to grow," he says.

"The machine contains trays of grains; you push the grain in one end, feed it out the other. It maintains it at 21 degrees, it waters it. A week later, you get out a barley sprout that's about five inches tall, with a thick root matt (pictured). I harvest every day from around January to June; I get 400-500kg of barley sprouts a day.

"The theory is if you provide cows with good nutrition, it keeps their digestive systems in balance and it gives them an appetite for rough grazing. And I've got loads of rough grazing."

The technology was developed in Australia, to help combat the effects of drought, and Steve believes it would benefit many farms in this country.

"It has got huge potential in Ireland - especially for farmers in marginal land, to allow them to use rough grazing," he says. "You don't have to feed silage. For cattle, you need a source of roughage with it, such as straw ­- but that can be very low quality. And for pigs and chickens, you can feed it neat.

"I did a study with Tralee IT and what we found is it's a much lower cost to maintain the cattle on the fodder and the straw than the ration and the straw. Unless you've got good-quality silage, it's more cost-effective ­- including labour and electricity - to use the fodder machine, and rough straw."

Even for the fortunate farmers with top-quality silage, the sprouting machine provides some insurance.

"These extreme weather events are going to get more frequent," says Steve. "All the data says this is going to happen, and it is happening. And the more unpredictable the weather, the more we are going to need these backstops."

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