Thomas Mc Donagh, poet, playwright, revolutionary, martyr for Irish freedom. But that’s enough about me, there was this other guy by the same name who was born in 1878 in Cloughjordan Co. Tipperary and was executed by firing squad in Dublin in 1916 after the Easter Rebellion. So there was a lot of questions being asked when I went along, with my host Pat Malone, to a night of Irish language, song and poetry in a pub in Cloughjordan on Monday which is organised by some members of the town’s Thomas Mc Donagh historical society! I told them of my adventures but I don’t think they matched up to those of their local icon..
But back to business.
Farmers being squeezed more and more by supermarkets. Commodity prices changing almost as often and as the Irish weather. Food miles. Climate change. Peak oil. With many farmers becoming disillusioned with the high risk and uncertainty involved in traditional farming; and consumers becoming more concerned about where their food is coming from, how it is produced and the environmental and health costs of this food chain, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an increasingly popular way for farmers and communities to develop a mutually beneficial partnership. It is a model that can be adapted and changed to suit local needs but the benefits of most models include community access to local, seasonally produced food direct from the farmer and the farmer avoiding the risk and debt of traditional agriculture.
This example of a CSA in Cork provides an introduction to some of the potential benefits.
So the basis for the system is shared risk and shared reward. The members commit to paying a certain amount which means the farmer is guaranteed an income and then the risk of the crop failing or the potential for it to be a bumper harvest is shared.
In the model featured in the video, the farmer seems to have initiated the project and the members gain a share in the harvest. In many of these farmer driven models in the US or UK, a box of veg or a certain defined amount of milk or meat is guaranteed to the customer instead of a share of the harvest.
In Cloughjordan in Co.Tipperary, a CSA has been developed that is member driven. The Cloughjordan Community Farm was
set up in 2008 by some residents who are planning to live in the Ecovillage being developed there.
A farm was leased from a sympathetic local resident and members were recruited. A loan was sourced from en ethical bank in the UK and the initial inputs for the farm were paid for. The members then paid 20€ per week and in return they would have a share in the harvest of veg, dairy and meat from the farm. Out of the money, a farm manager was employed to work full-time. A central drop-off point was agreed on in the village and members were given the key so they could come twice a week to pick up their produce.
This video gives an introduction to the farm set-up:
In 2009, the farm produced a wide range of vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, beetroot, kale, chard, turnips, parsnips, tomatoes and courgettes. The first Kerry calf was born in March of that year, so there was a good supply of milk, and two other Kerry cows produced offspring this Autumn. There are six Shetland sheep who each had a lamb last year, some goats and last year there was one Saddle-back pig, Peggy-sue, who had eight piglets so there was a supply of meat occasionally. There were also some hens providing eggs.
A variety of grain was grown -oats, barley and wheat as well as more unusual types such as rye and spelt -some of this will be animal feed and some for the members. The farm uses bio-dynamic farming techniques which Pat Malone, one of the farms’ founders explained to me, is a self-contained system where all of the inputs for the farm are produced on the farm; and like in all organic methods there is a strong emphasis on preserving soil fertility without using artificial pesticides or fertilizers.
One of the prime objectives of the CSA is to ensure the long-term food security of the community. And the decision to go with a member driven CSA is so that the members benefit from the long-term growth potential of the farm. Some residents of Cloughjordan who are not planning to live in the Eco-village are also involved and in 2009 the members had a steady supply of food throughout the year. After this success, the cost per member was reduced to take in to account family size and ability to pay and there were high hopes to extend membership numbers for 2010 and even employ another farm worker.
This year, however, the farm has hit a low point.
The veg field was flooded and the polytunnels underused resulting in a shortage of supplies for the members. The grains were most successful this year and there are efforts being made to trade or sell the excess grain to buy in veg for the members.
This week at the pick-up point there were carrots, cabbage, kale, chard, spuds and milk but nothing like the quantities of last year.
Changes are going to be made at the farm this year in terms of staffing and structure. Instead of one manager being responsible for the whole farm, three people will be responsible for three different aspects of the farm. This is one of the drawbacks of the member driven form of CSA: if there are failures or restructuring is required, the members have to take responsibility for making the changes and have a decision-making system
established so that all members have a say, not always easy with a large group.
But the potential benefits of course are huge. Once the farm is established and working well, more and more people will want to be members and the critical mass will allow for more projects to be set up. The community farm is at a low point at the moment but the resolution of problems should make it more resilient for the future.
In the long-term, the Eco-village has plans for food growing plots and allotments closer to the residential areas; and fruit and nut trees are being prepared in the nursery to be planted around the new developments. So part of the CSA will eventually be moved on to the village land when the time is right.
It’s definitely a time of transition at the moment and lots of adjustments and changes will take place at the farm in Cloughjordan in the near future. I feel that the CSA model that is being tried there won’t really be tested fully until the eco-village is up and running and a long-term plan is devised to put it on to a steadier footing with a set number of members and management structure. In the meantime, the challenge for the management committee is to keep enough members on board so that the project can reach its full potential.
If and when it does, it could become a model for a truly revolutionary model of agriculture.
Thanks a million to Pat and Wendy for hosting me in Cloughjordan and to the guys at the Irish night for the warm welcome.