Monday 18 December 2017

Rain, weeds and experts abound

Yes, the weather outlook is gloomy in the short term but complaining about it doesn't help, writes Willie Kealy

'HAY'LL be dear?" Tom-my Cusack used to say to me every time I came into his drinking establishment.

Tommy was the owner of Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street and, together with his brother Con, he ran one of the best pubs in Dublin, forbidding singing and dancing and most especially food of any description. Even a cup of coffee was not on the menu.

They concentrated instead on serving the best of drink to a discerning clientele of actors from the Abbey, civil servants from Hawkins House, retired dock workers from the locality, journalists from the Irish Press, and a small assortment of various other chancers.

The Cusacks were from Cavan and like many country people, Tommy never lost his love for the land and kept a few bullocks at the home place. I was supposed to know a bit about farming at the time -- the mid-Seventies -- hence the query about the price of hay. Over time, as Tommy realised I was not the Oracle of all matters agricultural, it morphed from a question into a catchphrase.

Today I know even less about farming than I did then, except that the outlook in the short term is gloomy.

Blame the weather. And if you want to take it further, blame climate change -- that much argued-over phenomenon, the very existence of which is denied by some while its causes are disputed by many others who keep confusing day-to-day weather conditions with climate patterns. Climate change was quite a hot topic there for a while and even the ignorant were beginning to come round as they noticed the milder winters, the increased rainfall, but then the economy fell apart and just making a living became the most pressing concern.

But that did not end the Irish obsession with the weather. It's too hot, it's too wet, it's not hot enough. The perspective changes as often as the seasons in any given day. So obsessed have we become with the weather that Met Office man John Eagleton has given up doing the RTE reports, because he doesn't want hassle from people he meets who seem to think he has some control over conditions. In Holland, small businesses suggested holding forecasters responsible for loss of business because they were depressing people. This is, of course, unfair.

What would be fair would be to surcharge them every time they get the forecast wrong. After all, it's a service and they are selling it.

Farming, which seemed to be the only industry showing any sign of health in the recession, is now hit hard. The fields are sodden and mucky. Grass and weeds have built up extra stores of pollen -- bad news for hay-fever sufferers. Winter wheat, spring barley, grass for silage are all lodged on the ground, maybe never to rise again. And anyway the ground couldn't take the heavy machinery needed for harvest. Some cattle have had to be brought indoors. Milk yields and cattle prices are down. All very depressing, but not to the point that the Government should accede to calls for monetary compensation.

Fluctuating weather conditions are part and parcel of farming and, in the words of Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, compensating farmers for changing weather conditions would be "crazy". But some due payments are being brought forward, and that makes sense and will help.

I went away for a couple of weeks recently -- to get some real direct sunshine in California. Before I went, I had cut the grass and nuked the weeds with Roundup, which is about the best you can get these days. Time was you got a real weed-killer, but too many depressed bachelor farmers were taking it accidentally or on purpose. Anyway, it did the job, but when I came back the grass had shot up and the weeds were a foot high. While I was away there was any god's amount of rain but also lots of heat -- ideal growing conditions for weeds, but for little else. Nettles are thriving and thistles are monstrous; our old friends the noxious weeds, which used to appear on wanted posters in Garda stations and post offices, are everywhere. Now if I could get a good couple of dry days guaranteed, I could go at them again, but what are the chances of that? And if I try to cut the grass, the lawn will be like ploughed fields.

The conditions are ideal too for the spread of potato blight which makes me wonder why the vitriolic campaign against genetically modified blight-resistant spuds, or grain crops that need less irrigation in African countries. It's the only answer on offer to the coming world food crisis, but some people will always resist change, putting every problem (and every proposed solution ) down to a capitalist conspiracy. And now I see that the current weather is causing a huge rise in e-coli poisoning!

The apples are scarce -- I counted just a dozen on one tree. Someone said that after last year's bumper crop, you are bound to have a fallow season. But I reckon it was the false spring which encouraged the blossoms out too early. Then the frost came like a sniper and took them out.

Now I have given up listening to complaints about the weather. Yes, we are not getting direct sunlight but it's up there, hiding behind the rain clouds, keeping it warm but just not giving you that tan. You could sit out in it, in theory, and be comfortable, if you didn't have to keep running inside when the rains came. Build yourself a little sun house -- a greenhouse for humans -- and you will be able to sit in 80 degrees Fahreheit with your book or newspaper and listen to the radio, without having to be discommoded by the rain. You can remove yourself from the company of the weather-moaning bores, confident in the knowledge that, on this topic, there are no experts. Nobody knows anything.

Except, hay'll be dear.

Sunday Independent

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