'The small farmer is as important as the big operators'
THE Department of Agriculture needs new policies on sustainable farming if rural Ireland is to thrive, says Fergal Anderson, a vegetable producer developing his family's smallholding near Kilrickle in Loughrea, Co Galway.
Fergal was one of the organisers of the recent Talamh Beo meeting in Galway.
The gathering was called to raise the profile of small farmers on the national agenda and ensure that the needs and problems of the small farmer, especially in the West, are addressed by the agri authorities.
Fergal believes that the small farmer in Ireland is being "greenwashed" from the farming agenda as the Department of Agriculture, Bord Bia, the co-ops and the big farm organisations focus their energies on scale rather that sustainability.
The 37-year-old says that the future of the small farmer is in peril.
He is equally insistent that the fertiliser-intensive management regime used in Irish farming will have negative consequences in the long term.
"We have to get this problem of greenwashing the small sustainable farmer off the national agricultural agenda stopped, and Talamh Beo is the only farming organisation highlighting the problem", Fergal says.
"The future of farming, especially small farms in isolated rural areas, should be a matter of national discussion by our politicians and media in the same way as our health service and housing problems are."
Fergal - who worked in Brussels with the pan-European sustainable farming organisation La Via Campesina before returning home to Galway seven years ago to develop his vegetable enterprise, Leaf and Root Farm - believes the Department of Agriculture could be doing more for the sector.
Apart from his farmer activism, Fergal is busy developing his business; at the moment, his main customers are "local".
He supplies Loam restaurant in Galway city, run by Michelin-starred chef Enda McEvoy, year-round.
From June to December he runs a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme with a cohort of some 30 local customers whom he supplies with delivered vegetable boxes on a weekly basis.
Fergal works the land - which was purchased by his parents some 35 years ago - with Italian partner Emanuela Russo, whom he met while working in Brussels.
The couple have a one-year-old daughter, Nessa.
Only two to three acres of the 30-acre holding are under vegetables, but this is likely to increase over time, and there is also an orchard; some 25 acres are woodland.
Fergal describes the land in Kilrickle as "free-draining shallow soil, which requires a lot of manuring".
Away from his business, his main interest is campaigning for sustainable farming and a swing away from the high-density beef and dairy regimes which dominate Irish agriculture at the moment, and the top-down culture that "dominates every enterprise sector in Irish agriculture".
Avowedly against feed lots, the overuse of fertiliser on land and the general commercially-driven culture of the Irish agri sector - not to mention using soya or anything resembling soya as animal feed - his ideal world would see the small sustainable farmer being as important on the Irish agri landscape as the bigger operations down south and in the midlands.
Will it happen, I ask?
"It has to," Fergal replies. "We need to take positive steps to save rural Ireland and the small farmer.
"We have to improve the situation because everything is pointing in one direction at the moment, and that direction is not good for rural Ireland."
In conversation with Ken Whelan
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