Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

Food tourism holds key to rural renewal and growth

Taste Council urges food community to get proactive

Kevin Sheridan, chairman of Taste Council, Evan Doyle from Brooklodge Hotel and Una FitzGibbon from Bord Bia at Brooklodge Hotel in Co Wicklow for the 6th annual Food Summer School. Photo: Gary O' Neill
Kevin Sheridan, chairman of Taste Council, Evan Doyle from Brooklodge Hotel and Una FitzGibbon from Bord Bia at Brooklodge Hotel in Co Wicklow for the 6th annual Food Summer School. Photo: Gary O' Neill
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Small family farms and food producers offer the most tenable solution to the revitalisation of rural Ireland, the head of the Taste Council of Ireland has said.

Instead of waiting for rural-proofed government policies that ensure towns and villages are not left behind as the economy continues to grow, communities are being urged to take matters into their own hands.

Food tourists and "slight tweaks" to agricultural legislation have also been mooted as vital keys.

Kevin Sheridan, Taste Council chairman, says food is the answer to rural demise. Speaking at the voluntary group sixth annual food summer school, Mr Sheridan said: "We've actually got a great solution. Rural Ireland is mostly a farming, food producing, community that provides employment in extremely remote areas.

"A butcher shop is just as important for it's social cohesion as a garda station in terms of how essential it is to a community," he said.

He says food will always bring trade and that locals must encourage each other to set up markets, food fairs, or simply sell their own produce to local shops, businesses, pubs and hotels.

"We need to invest in our small producers and encourage activity in town centres related to food and fishing communities. We don't need to be going around waiting for board decisions. It's all about human contact, all those layers, that's where the real potential is," said Mr Sheridan while addressing attendees at Brooklodge Hotel and Wells Spa, in Macreddin Village, Co Wicklow - Ireland's only luxury organic hotel.

Whether it's people who bake homemade apple tarts, artisan cheese, grow their own leeks or have their own special jam recipe, Mr Sheridan says local farmers, food producers, food groups should think small and rally together to set up a weekly market or monthly fair to sell their goods.

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"It's never going to be hugely economically rewarding but it will reward you in terms of satisfaction and how it fits in with your life. It gives a sense of hope, vitality, growth and connection. You have to be proactive with your peers because lasting change can only be made on the ground," he said.

Evan Doyle, Taste Council vice-chair and progressive proprietor of Brooklodge Hotel, built in 1999, says farmers must focus on the simpler picture.

"Instead of fishermen selling their catch locally, they're going to a wholesaler, which means locals go buy frozen fish in the supermarket. But if that money stayed in the local community, it would have a multiplier effect," he said, highlighting how Clonakilty has successfully adopted such an approach.

He says Achill Island, six square miles and 16,000 hectares, is another great example of rural survival.

"They have certain things they are doing right such as the local abattoirs, an independent butcher, native beer, oyster beds, a smoke house, and they're producing their own lamb and sausages. These can all be sold in local guest houses for breakfast and feature on local pub menus," he said.

However, he says legislative hurdles can block grassroot communities from capitalising on local production.

"In Ireland you can have a brood of up to 50 chickens and sell on your farm gate, but I'm not allowed to buy because I own a restaurant. If the producer wants to sell to me, they must send their eggs off to get stamped, which is wrong. But with little changes there are ways around this, all it would take is some talk with the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Authority," he said, pointing to similar advances in France, Spain and Italy.

"When a new rule comes, it's blanket. We need the derogations, we need the Government to realise that we can tweak things and look to examples in Europe where they are doing it all the time," he said.

Mr Doyle, a self-professed 'food tourist', says culinary tourism must be promoted nationwide. Unlike the summer tourist, he says food tourists will travel all year round, whether it's raining or sunshine.

"I'd pay good money to fly to Denmark to eat in the morning or to go to farms in Sweden. There are so many people that do that and yet in Ireland we are not attracting those people who would only love to delve into our national food story," he said.

Achill Island Lamb thriving since 1962

The power of food tourism is being "under-measured" by rural communities struggling to survive, a leading island-based food entrepreneur has said.

The Calvey family have been producing their distinctively different, Achill Mountain Lamb, on their family farm for almost six decades. Although head of the business, Martin Calvey, didn't receive any financial support down through the years, he has succeeded in building and sustaining an abattoir, butchers, restaurant and stables on the largest island off the west coast

It has become a leading island employer with all lambs sourced from local farmers. Speaking at the Taste Council's Food Summer School, Martina Calvey, his daughter, says her father created an opportunity for himself and visitors generated demand.

"Ours is really a story of success and diversification in disadvantaged areas. The business has been one of the main employers on Achill Island for well over 50 years and these businesses were the back bone of the local people here in Achill. It's really about people living in a community and what enables people to survive to a standard of living. Everything to do with the crafting and producing of our lamb meat is done on Achill Island," he said.

However, the boom in holiday homes brought a new trend where holiday makers brought their weekly shop with them, rather than buying and eating out locally. "The loyalty is something that we really have to try to rebuild again. We must recapture the past where everything was produced on the island and little was brought in," she said.

'No silver bullet' to rural revival

Ballymaloe Cookery School founder Darina Allen was among the culinary elite celebrating the Taste Council sixth annual summer school high in the mountains of the garden county.

The unique gathering offers farmers, food producers, chefs, independent retailers policy-makers and food professionals from Ennis to Cahir to Kilbeggan an opportunity to discuss issues and challenges regarding their future. This year speakers and panellists examined the rural food community.

Prof Cathal O'Donoghue, head of Teagasc rural development programme, said there is "no silver bullet, it's a lot of small steps".

"Consumer trend for local business is increasing, restaurants in particular are responding. We must provide communities with learning and mentors," he said.

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