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The Meitheal Effect

26 March 2019
Type Media Article

By Bernie Leahy, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc Galway/Clare

“One more Cow and one more Sow and one more Acre under the plough”.

Patrick Hogan of Kilrickle, Loughrea, Co. Galway, Minister for Agriculture between 1922 and 1932, under Ireland’s first Independent government, meant to improve Irish Agriculture’s fledgling industry when he made this statement.

When the new Department of Agriculture was set up, Patrick Hogan adopted policies to improve the competitiveness of Irish exports of eggs, meat and butter as well as improving Agricultural Advisory services and animal and crop breeding. His Land Act of 1923 ensured that by 1937 (one year after his untimely death in 1936), all farmers owned their lands.

His predecessor, Horace Plunkett, the father of the Irish Co-op Movement, also placed great value on co-operatives being the vehicles for economic regeneration of agriculture. Regeneration was to be brought about by widespread education and technical services. Plunkett’s vision for an “Ideal Ireland” was one where “Co-operative Organisations run by small farmers on sound commercial principles brought together competiveness and productivity but also incorporated the values of rural communities and national regeneration”.

Sustainable farming in modern rural Ireland should value the concepts of social, environmental and economic development equally.

Are Sustainable farming systems being destroyed by Globalisation?

Increased pressures on farm holdings to become economically efficient at any cost is undermining the benefits achieved by the former and present day environmental schemes such as REPS AEOS and GLAS. Water quality is one such parameter that is already experiencing the negative effects.

Increased specialisation, expansion and consolidation of farm units can result in less diverse farming systems and more monocultural systems. The benefits of a diverse rural community are quickly disappearing from rural communities. Creative thinking is needed by Local Government planning to stall the exodus of young blood from local rural communities and land. Decentralisation and improved rural development investment initiatives are badly needed to create locally based employment. Overreliance on beef and even dairying as our main export commodities may have to change into the future.

Investment in rural services such as rural transport schemes, Agri and Eco tourism initiatives, archaeological and heritage preservation projects, apprenticeships in craft, furniture restoration, horticulture and garden initiatives, local flood relief initiatives, waste, bio mass and renewable energy initiatives are many viable areas which could present employment opportunities in rural Ireland. Training and supports in these areas need to be developed with funding provided. The future benefits of these projects could be based on various small business units on a Co-Operative basis as in Horace Plunkett’s vision of an “Ideal Ireland”.

Cutting Out the Middle Man!

Irish vegetable producers are some of the sectors that have suffered as a result of intense competition between the supermarkets in their aim to capture more customers. Recent reports show a drop of 56% of vegetable growers (377 to 165) in the last 15 years. They cannot compete with competition from other EU and non EU suppliers to many of our supermarket chains. All food suppliers could face the same prospect.

An example of how the Co-Op principle fortified the 2012 Greek economic crisis was that of the “Greek Potato Movement”. “It benefitted everyone” cited Christos Kamenides, Professor of Agricultural Marketing at Thessaloniki University in Greece. He assisted a local ‘Producer to Consumer’ system where initially potatoes were sold directly to consumers adjacent to local supermarket parking lots. The movement was propelled by very high supermarket prices and prompted consumers to buy directly from local markets. Farmers broadened their supply range to onions, flour, rice, olives and up to 4,000 Easter lambs. The Greek Potato Movement prompted a mass movement of public goodwill.  Vulnerable consumers challenged the greed of the supermarkets and large service providers. This concept of “Unified Co Operative” served to unite Consumer and Producer as an ideal model for buying foodstuffs.

Another successful venture is a French Machinery Co-op movement named CUMA where farmers in Brion, West France, buy machinery between an average of six farmers. This shared purchase arrangement is widely used and enables farmers to increase their farm profit margins.

On a more local note, Fergal Anderson and Emanuela Russo of Leaf and Root Farm at Kilmeen, Loughrea, Co. Galway are involved in a community supported agricultural scheme. They promote the concept of supporting family farmers who produce food in their localities and who respect biodiversity and low input farming systems. They supply organically grown fruit and vegetables to a Michelin starred restaurant, Loam, in Galway city, based on this important concept.

Perhaps it is time to rekindle the flame of rural diversity in Rural Ireland based on the practical principles of the Co-op movement and bring Horace Plunkett’s “Ideal Ireland” to adulthood.