Saturday 21 February 2015

Community-supported agriculture

Published in the Kildare Nationalist this week. 

When people start their own business venture, they usually prefer finding investors to relying solely on a bank loan – many other people can share in your risk and rewards, and they find it in their interest to help you succeed. Now, some farmers are using this model, finding selling shares of their farm to the people who will eat the crops.

Under a system called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), local residents invest in a farm at thebeginning of the year, before the crops have been planted. Typically each family buys a standard share of the farm’s produce, and in exchange they receive a box of crops each week for the rest of the season. What they receive will depend on the time of year, but if a farmer plants enough variety, any weeks’ box will likely have several different kinds of crops, whether delivered in May or October.

Such projects make a farm particularly resilient in the face of global financial crises. A CSA farm does not depend on loans from major banks to continue from year to year, nor do its crop sales depend onthe vagaries of faraway markets. A CSA pays the farmer early in the year, so that the farm does not have to go deeply in debt each year, and it allows the farmer to market their food before their 16-hour days begin.

Sometimes a CSA plan finds a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They providework for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.

In addition, CSAs allow neighbours to form a personal relationship with the person who is growing their food, and allows the farmer to hear and respond to consumer demand quickly, without the need for commissioning survey groups. Since people must invest in the farm, they usually must cometo the farm at least once a year, and get to meet the farmer and see where their food comes from. They must accept a variety of vegetables and learn to cook them.

But perhaps the most important use of such farms is giving a community food that is not flown in from across an ocean -- food that must often be must be sealed in plastic and foam packaging, sometimes preserved in chemical gases, to delay spoilage. We are surrounded by fertile land here in Ireland, yet we import 90 per cent ofour food. If there were an oil crisis, as many predict is beginning now, we would have to rebuild muchof our local agriculture from scratch.

If the farm is next door, the food is always fresh, no rubbish need be generated, and we would not use those thousands of gallons of fossil fuel right away, and do our part to delay a global energy crunch. CSAs can go beyond vegetables as well, to include grains, meat, home-made bread, eggs, cheese, flowers or fruit. Several farmers could join forces to create a regional CSA, coordinating their efforts –one supplying chickens, for example, and another supplying vegetables.

By looking at ways to embrace CSAs in this country, we might be able to stem the gradual loss of our farms and farming families, and to ensure that those that remain not just survive, but thrive.

Monday 16 February 2015

Back from book-binding

I’m just now back from spending the weekend in the Ox Mountains of County Sligo, a land of lonely beauty like you don’t expect to see outside of a Lord of the Rings film. I was taking a course in bookbinding from one of the few remaining craftsmen of that art. More on that later.

For now, here are a couple of small books I made under his guidance – one covered in calf vellum, the other in deer. They are just first attempts, of course, and filled with mistakes, but they were immensely satisfying to make by hand.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

End of winter

The last day of winter for us is St. Bridget’s Eve, and this was a beautiful fresh sunny day, with a gentle wind two points south of west. This last day of winter put on a pleasant appearance as if it were saying, “I was soft and easy with you for the last three months, and now, as we are going to part, let us shake hands with each other in a friendly manner. Good bye!”

On St. Bridget’s Eve the little girls go from door to door with brideogs, images of St. Bridget dressed up in lovely clothes, asking for halfpennies – and getting them – to have a party for themselves, just as the young boys do with the wren in the holly branch on St. Stephen’s Day.

- From the diary of Tomas de Bhaldraithe, 31st January 1827, in The Diary of an Irish Countryman.

Monday 9 February 2015

The old roots

We like to walk through woods near our house, formerly the grounds of a castle, built in the 1600s and almost destroyed in the 1641 rebellion, rebuilt and extended over the centuries.The home of the baronial family that ruled these lands now lies vacant, its halls of power now open to the sky.

From the nearby lake we can hear the trills of moorhens and the squeaks of coots, tending their chicks in the dense thickets of reeds. On one corner of the lake must once have sat a small boathouse, now covered with rocks like a cairn.

On the top of this mound, its roots winding through and over the rubble, grows a single tree, somehow thriving on the barest of surfaces and clinging to the mound through the fiercest of winds.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Life on the canal

We live along a canal dug more than 250 years ago, to ship turf in barges to the hearths of Dublin. Now, these same canals serve as a home for people -- sometimes families -- who roam up and down the canal, changing the scenery outside their window whenever they like.

My favourite houseboat so far was one that had gardens on its deck, giving the owners a permanent source of vitamins. I'm told that other houseboat owners have cultivated patches of wild edibles along the canal banks in patches, harvesting as they go.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

The fish for me

O, fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s belly,
Fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s belly,
We’ll market a lassie and christen it Nellie,
Herring’s belly, lassie-ga-Nellie,
Herring’s back, laddie-ca-Jack,
Herring’s fins, needles and pins,
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies,
Herring head, loaf and bread, and all sorts of things.
Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring it is the fish for me,
Sing fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo-lai, day.

O, fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s tail,
Fiddle-dee-dee with a herring’s tail,
We’ll mark it a ship with a beautiful sail
Herring’s tail, lar-i-a sail,
Herring’s belly, lassie-ga-Nellie,
Herring’s back, laddie-ca-Jack,
Herring’s fins, needles and pins,
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies,
Herring head, loaf and bread, and all sorts of things.
Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring it is the fish for me,
Sing fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo, fa-la-la-lai-doo-lai, day.

-- Lullaby told to children in Irish fishing villages. Photo courtesy of