Local and Frugal Ideas from Irish Agriculture

Spring 1997

1996 Farmer to Farmer Conference

University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator Dick Brzozowski spent half of his sabbatical in Ireland last year, and he brought back some green and economical ideas that could be adapted in Maine. He shared these ideas at the Farmer to Farmer Conference in Bar Harbor in November.

During Brzozowski’s three-month stay in County Cork, he found that the Irish “think a lot differently than we do.” He held up a can of Coca-Cola to demonstrate his point; it was less than half the size of a U.S. can of Coke. “Everything [there] is a manageable size, down to earth,” he said.

Brzozowski chose County Cork because it’s a dairy area where he could study grassland management and it’s similar to Maine in many ways. He and his wife home schooled their three children, ages 11, 10 and six, while there, and often traveled by bicycle into the countryside, since rental costs for a tiny car were high – $250/week – as was the cost of gas – $42 to fill a small tank. They lived in a “townhouse” (an apartment to us) in which everything was miniature compared with U.S. standards: the washing machine, for instance, held about 1/3 of a U.S.-sized load. “Their mindset is that you don’t need something big.”

Brzozowski and his family were there from late February to late May, the cold, rainy season, and they heated their small apartment with peat, coal or wood in a fireplace where their water was heated, as well. After returning from a day away, “it took about six hours for the apartment to get warm,” said Brzozowski.

The climate in Ireland is temperate compared with that of Maine. “It doesn’t get below 30 degrees often,” said Brzozowski, and it rains 150 days of the year, so the “Emerald Isle” is green year round. Such temperatures and rainfall produce excellent grass growth, so that unlike Maine, which is 90% forested, 90% of Ireland is in pasture. Although the country is a little smaller than Maine, it has about three times the population: 3,571,000. Of those, only 1,176,000 are at work, and 11.5% are agricultural workers (compared with a little over 1% in the United States). Most of these farmers are unionized in the Irish Farmers’ Association, which carries considerable political clout. To become a farmer, a person must take a two-year training course with Teagasc (pronounced ‘Chagask,’ Gaelic for ‘advisor’), the Irish equivalent of the extension service; must get a certificate; and must be under 35 years old.

The main commodities raised by those workers are, in economic order, beef cattle, milk and dairy products (mostly processed into cheeses and other products for the global market), pigs, poultry and eggs, sheep and lamb, horses, and wool. A typical small dairy farm might have 25 head and 200 swine. Because of strict quotas on milk production and hefty fines for overproduction, excess milk is fed to pigs.

Most of the tractors that Brzozowski saw were old-fashioned. Some of the milking systems were, likewise, old-fashioned, while others were state-of-the-art. The narrow roads in many areas precluded use of milk trucks, and farmers in those places brought their milk to the dairy in small tanks pulled behind their trucks. This situation will probably change quickly, said Brzozowski, because of GATT. The Irish expect that they will have to sell more products to the world market in order to compete, so highways are planned throughout the country.

Nitrogen management appeared to be poorer in County Cork than in Maine, said Brzozowski. He “noticed a lot of bad looking water,” a lot of manure running off, and a lot of use of nitrogen fertilizer. Still, he brought back many good ideas that might work in Maine, such as relief for farmers, country markets, discussion groups, sharing equipment, and rotational intensive grazing.

Farm Relief Services

Most of the farms in Ireland are family farms, and very few are corporate farms. In many situations, said Brzozowski, labor is the limiting factor. A cooperative was established to provide labor support to these farmers. The labor provided is specialized and costs an average of $6.40 per hour. If a farmer is sick, wants a vacation, needs fences built, fertilizer spread, calves fed, or other chores done, help is available. The cooperative does all of the book work, and the farmers pay dues to the cooperative. Workers are people who need work, are trained and are available to move around the country and do what needs to be done.

Mollie Birdsall of Horsepower Farm suggested that such a service might be tied in with MOFGA’s apprenticeship program. Another Farmer to Farmer participant suggested that rather than a cooperative, private relief businesses could be established to do chores. The entrepreneurs could bill themselves as farm sitters, analogous to house sitters.

Another participant suggested that sitters might be available but simply aren’t publicized. MOFGA member Ellis Percy said that his son had been farm sitting for a neighbor recently; I related that the day before the conference, I had met a grower in town who was looking for someone to feed her pigs over the weekend. One participant asked if these sitters, or farmers who use them, would require special insurance.

Irish Country Markets

Brzozowski believes that Irish country markets – community-based markets for farm products, crafts, plants and home baked goods – could work well year round in Maine. The Irish Country Markets are open for 1-1/2 hours, one day per week, usually from 10:30 to noon, and “people line up half an hour before they’re open because they know that’s where to get quality stuff,” said Brzozowski. “They’re like Mom & Pop stores, but are very controlled.” These are the characteristics he noted:

• A market consists of approximately 35 producers/members.

• Members pay an annual fee and give 10% of their sales receipts to the cooperative.

• Business meetings are held once each month.

• Members get paid once each month by check.

• Members bring their wares weekly with a docket (record sheet).

• The market is held at a community center where the rent is low.

• Only local products are sold through the market.

• Three cashiers are available for sales. They give receipts.

• Periodic advertising is used as needed.

• Hand-carried baskets are provided for shoppers.

• The event is considered a social time; tea, coffee and baked goods are sold at a “coffee shop” area.

• The customer is always satisfied.

• Prospective members apply and are placed on a waiting list.

MOFGA member Bob Basile told about a similar group of three markets in New York state, each open one day per week, at which a range of goods is sold, “even jeans.” He said that some vendors made $40,000 a year at these markets and suggested that fairgrounds, which sit empty most of the year, could be used for such markets in Maine, adding that “fair associations are hurting” and might welcome the additional income.

Discussion Groups

Discussion groups are a relatively recent method of transferring agricultural information, said Brzozowski. They have been very effective in Ireland and New Zealand, where farmers meet to share new techniques and ideas. He described them as follows:

• A discussion group is composed of 10 to 20 farmers of like commodities within a specific area of the county.

• The farmers in the group meet once each month at a different host farm where one or two timely topics are addressed.

• The chairperson of the group (who is the chairperson for a year) introduces the host farmer and any guests. Guest are not common, said Brzozowski, because the groups are rather closed, sometimes sharing money or family problems as well as commodity problems.

• The farm advisor facilitates the discussion, which may take place in the farm yard, field or equipment shed.

• Everyone disinfects his boots in a dip basin routinely on arrival and departure.

• The group meets for two or three hours and typically begins in the late morning and finishes before lunch. Sometimes lunch or a snack is served.

• The groups are quite interactive.

• Each farmer is given the opportunity to briefly explain some of the seasonal activities underway on his farm. Sample topics include pasture turnout, grass growth rate, and heat detection in cows.

• A walking tour of the farm complements the discussion and gives time for interaction and questions.

Farmer to Farmer participants said that the Hancock County chapter of MOFGA is probably the closest thing to a regular discussion group in Maine. One grower said, “The problem is time. The Irish find it okay to take two hours off to visit a farm and learn. Our farmers are too busy. Many are still developing their farm systems.”

Brzozowski understood this problem, but added, “You have to look at it as an investment” and, “The Irish think Americans create too much work for themselves.” He suggested that a discussion group could start in a small locale with four or five people who are all greenhouse growers, or herb growers, or those who are interested in tillage.

Minimizing the Amount of Farm Equipment

Farmers in many parts of the world, including Ireland, don’t have the luxury of owning many and varied pieces of farm equipment, said Brzozowski, because of cost or limited availability, maintenance, parts, storage, usefulness, fuel and support technologies. He suggested that Maine farmers might, as Irish farmers have, share more equipment when that equipment doesn’t have to be used at the same time on different farms.

Intensive Rotational Grazing

Corn does not grow well in Ireland because of the lack of degree days, so most of the silage there is grass, and the Irish capitalize on grass growth and cheap feed by pasturing their cows intensively and through seasonal dairying. “To feed grain would be a sin. Almost 88% of the cows in Ireland calve in the early spring” when grass pasture is available, said Brzozowski. “Nobody would go out of their way to milk cows in the winter.” To promote these systems further, Teagasc is pushing the slogan “Cash in on grass” for the next 10 years. The organization has shown farmers how to block out their farms according to the season, the amount of pasture land and the amount needed for silage so that no feed is wasted. Cows are kept on a pasture as long as the grass is above the toe height of the farmer’s Wellington boot.

The pastures in Ireland are primarily perennial ryegrass and lack legumes. “Nitrogen fertilizer is cheap in Ireland,” said Brzozowski; “it’s not imported; it’s made on the island,” and it’s used liberally.

– Jean English

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