Is This Our Farming Future?

Photographs by Patrick Racher and Patricia Dodd Racher, September 2012. Farm photographs taken at Muckross Farms, Killarney, Kerry.

Much of our best farmland has been built on. We are going to need to produce more food in future, because we will not be able to rely on importing food from the rest of the world. Droughts, floods, erosion, the onward march of deserts, declining availability of the fossil fuels powering agriculture and all the rest of our economic activity, mean that we will struggle to feed 7 billion people, let alone 9 or 10 billion. Somehow, we will have to use poor land more effectively and in sustainable ways. These photos from South West Ireland suggest some of the challenges ahead.

Bantry Bay from the Caha Pass: steep slopes, scant soil, not the place for machinery.

Upper Lake, Killarney. Could more fish be produced from lakes?

This farm would have been 40 or 50 acres with a dozen cows, and some pigs and hens, and probably geese to fatten for Christmas.

Sixty or seventy years ago, life on small upland farms in Ireland was a) simple and (b) very hard work. No car and often no tractor, no mains water, no electricity. How would we cope in such circumstances again?

Vegetables were grown in small, sheltered plots: cabbages, onions and of course potatoes. In wet 2012 blight has affected potatoes badly.

Each farm kept a few pigs. Small farm life was and is a 24-hour responsibility.

Free-range hens must be protected from predators.

Farmyard manure is vital to maintain soil fertility, but spreading it without tractor-drawn machinery is a slow process — and would you want a muck heap outside your front door?

Keeping a wood or peat fire alight requires constant attention.

The working horse (more cob-like than this one) could make a come-back as fuel costs continue to escalate — but a single horse needs up to four acres of pasture.

1930s farm kitchen without a fridge. For the women of the family, it’s a day of chopping peat into small bricks, lighting the fire, fetching water from a well, cooking, hoeing the vegetable garden, looking after the animals and making produce to sell like butter and cheese.  This way of life, which is far more sustainable than energy-intensive agriculture, requires skills that most of us have lost and which are generally not taught in schools. 

Affording our Heritage will be a Big Issue

by Pat Dodd Racher, September 19 2012

Heritage comes expensive.

Bantry House in County Cork, Ireland, has a magnificent location on the shores of Bantry Bay. The house is home to the Shelswell-White family, whose ancestors moved in during 1765. From 1796 to 1891 those ancestors were the Earls of Bantry, but the title died with the 4th Earl, who had no children, and the estate passed to his eldest sister’s son.

The elegant parterre at Bantry House

Richard White, the 2nd Earl, was a keen collector of art and antiques, and in 1851 he bought many possessions of the late King Louis Philippe of France, who reigned from 1830 to 1848 and died in 1850. The eclectic mix of French, Irish, English, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and Oriental contents,  and pieces from other parts of the world too, in a largely Georgian mansion, is harmonious and fascinating, not at all intimidating. Visitors can wander around the rooms, taking as long as they want, even look at all the book titles in the library if so inclined. Lunch in the café, strolls around the gardens, and it’s easy to spend several hours here.

From the top of the 100 steps in the garden there is a panoramic view of Bantry Bay

Bantry House is, though, colossally in debt. We visited in mid-September, and soon after were told that in June the house had featured in the Channel 4 series ‘Country House Rescue’.* Thanks to Channel 4 On Demand, I watched the programme back in Wales, and learned:

  • The estate, formerly thousands of acres, is down to 100. Most of the land has been sold to pay debts.
  • Present debts (in Euros) are the equivalent of about £800,000.
  • In the first decade of the 21st century, visitor numbers fell from 60,000 to 28,000 a year.

Programme presenter Simon Davis suggested turning the East Stables into a restaurant and special events space, and brought in top Irish chef Richard Corrigan for a trial evening which made a moderate profit. The 70 paying customers paid €100 a head, about £80, which is a lot in modern Ireland (as it is in Wales too). It’s a sum representing an occasional treat, not a routine expenditure. It’s hard to see what more the owners of Bantry House could do to increase their revenues, as they host a music festival, plays, a craft fair, photography courses and a lot more besides. You can stay there as a guest, and the thought of evenings by the fire in the library is very tempting.

Bantry is an important historical house, but remote from tourism hot-spots. The day we visited, there was just one coach party and maybe a dozen cars at a time. In our era of falling real incomes (for the great majority) it is bound to become more difficult to afford the ongoing maintenance of the great houses of the past, let alone pay off all past debts.

One promising avenue is a package deal with Bantry Golf Club, a round on the championship course and a stay in the house. There are some very affluent golfers, for whom it’s a case of have clubs, will travel, and even better if they can help to preserve historic buildings too.

I can imagine oligarchs and hedge fund managers, with millions and even billions of pounds at their disposal, drooling at the prospect of owning a house like Bantry, but they would break the continuity of family occupation. What is more, would they keep it open to the public? When very rich people buy estates, they often put up big gates and make it clear that house and land are PRIVATE.  That, in the case of our historical heritage, would be a reversal of 100 years of widening public access.

So do visit Bantry House and help to keep it open and flourishing!

* ‘Country House Rescue’, series 4 episode 3.

Bantry House is on the shores of the famous bay

Ireland’s Narrow Roads Benefit the Foodie Town of Skibbereen

by Pat Dodd Racher, September 18 2012

Ireland has 96,029 kilometres of roads, according to Whitaker’s Almanack says 96,036 kilometres. That’s a lot of road for a small population of 4.59 million, in fact only about 48 persons per kilometre.  The UK in contrast has over 158 persons per kilometre of road. Ireland’s roads are well maintained considering their length and the financial crisis besetting the country, but there are lots of potholes, and just as importantly for big lorries, the roads are overwhelmingly single-carriageway.

Down in the far south west, the big supermarket chains are refreshingly absent. Although Tesco has moved into Ireland’s cities, there is no Tesco in Skibbereen, West Cork, Ireland’s most southerly town. The German discounter Lidl has arrived, but otherwise the food stores are independent or co-operative. The Spar at the Drinagh Co-op in Skibbereen has a coffee shop selling amazing cakes, and the other big central supermarket, SuperValu, is independently owned by local firm Fields. SuperValu is a symbol group, the name franchised from the Musgrave Group of Dublin (which also has the Centra name in Ireland and the Budgens and Londis names in the UK).

Attractive buildings, free parking, a buzz: Skibbereen

Skibbereen is a vibrant town, which this month staged the Taste of West Cork Food Festival. Restaurants, pubs, shops, hotels, the Heritage Centre, in fact virtually the whole of Skibbereen, created a foodfest with almost 50 events. The town’s population is only about 2,000 people, and they show how much a community can achieve if everyone works together. Fair trade, organic produce, community gardens, farmers’ markets, Skibbereen fuses town and country and has a long history besides.

The famine of the 1840s, mass starvation and emigration are commemorated in the Heritage Centre, constructed from the former gas works. The now-closed Mercy Heights convent, near the cathedral, is on sale for development but, like sites all over Ireland, is languishing on the market. There are vacant shops, closed restaurants, but most of Skibbereen is soldiering on, surviving, celebrating the survival. Parking is free, and shoppers’ spending mostly stays in the locality. That changes if remotely-owned retail multiples come to dominate. Then money is sucked out, never to return.

Those potholes and narrow roads are protecting Skibbereen from the articulated trucks which deliver just-in-time to superstores. I never thought I’d start to applaud potholes as community saviours!

Plenty of public space, independent shops, flowers and bright paint: recipe for lively small towns