Recently I’ve focused on learning more about Ireland’s food system and agricultural sector, in preparation for a trip there this summer. St. Patrick’s Day seems a fitting time to share some of what I’ve learned about Irish agriculture and food. Don’t miss the delicious recipe ideas at the end!
A Quick Overview of Irish Agriculture
To start off, let’s take a look at Irish agriculture.
Per Teagasc – the national agency that provides research, advice and information to ag and food sectors and rural communities – Ireland’s agri-food sector accounted for 8.5% of the nation’s employment in 2015. That number bumps up to about 10% when employment in affiliated industries is factored in. Irish agriculture is all about small farms: there are nearly 140,000 small farms across the island nation, with an average size of 32.5-35.5 hectares (that’s between 80-88 acres).
The number of small farms has decreased slightly in recent years and Irish agricultural producers have suffered due to a downturn in the global economy. Currently, households where a farmer and/or spouse relied on off-farm income was nearly 50%.
Irish agriculture is a grass-based industry. Per Teagasc, about 81% of the country’s agricultural land is devoted to grass (silage, hay and pasture).
Beef and cattle production (including dairy) dominate the agricultural economy. Sheep, pigs, fishing, horticulture and other crops (including cereals) play an important role in the agricultural economy. Sustainable forestry is also part of the mix. Interest in organics and local foods continues to grow, fueled by consumer demand (and tourism potential).
The U.K. is the primary market for Irish exports (more than 40% of all Irish exports head there). Other EU members and international markets account for the remainder. Learn more here.
Additional sources of reliable data about Ireland’s food system are the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM – somewhat analogous to our USDA) and Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board – a great and user-friendly online resource for both consumers and industry).
Editor’s Note: Teagasc works with producers on a range of issues and provides information to different audiences, including the public. It operates research centers, partners with public and private universities to deliver degree and non-formal educational programs in agriculture, and works in communities. Teagasc has characteristics of both the land grant universities and Cooperative Extension Service in the United States. Learn more about Teagasc here.
Consulting an Expert
I wanted to run my impressions by an expert, so I turned to Dr. Niamh Quinn, a UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) advisor specializing in human-wildlife interactions.
Quinn, a native of Ireland, received a PhD in small mammal ecology from the National University of Ireland in Galway. Her dissertation assessed the population dynamics of small mammals in the west of Ireland and the implications of hill sheep activity and habitat. She’s now based with UCCE at UC ANR’s South Coast Research and Extension Center in Orange County.
She kindly agreed to be a key Irish resource.
Editor’s Note: I recently wrote about a project Quinn’s taking the lead on for UC ANR – the Coyote Cacher – a new mobile app that aims to use public participation to collect more data about coyotes in California. The information will be used to help inform researchers about trends in coyote conflicts and interactions with humans, including sightings, etc.
Agriculture is a Big Deal in Ireland (and Has Been for Eons)
Quinn confirmed what I had read.
“Agriculture is huge. When I think about it, we grow grass. About 90% of our agriculture is grass-based, either growing grass or growing grass to feed animals on.
Farming obviously goes way back…it’s an old tradition in Ireland. Ireland was originally almost covered in forests and was converted to agriculture. Large farms are not really a thing in Ireland; it’s very much family-based and family-run. You wouldn’t get your hundreds of acres of land operations there…that’s unheard of in Ireland.
Ireland exports a lot of meat, certainly, because we get good prices for it. The quality of Irish agricultural products is world-renown.
Our dairy products are especially good…I’ve nothing but Irish butter here in my refrigerator in America, that’s for sure. Very high quality of dairy in Ireland.”
Editor’s Note: The Céide Fields – located in North Mayo – provide evidence Ireland’s ancient farming tradition. This rich archaeological site contains the world’s oldest field system (more than 5,000 years old). This one-off podcast – Grubs Up – Food in Medieval Ireland – popped up a couple of years ago, and is worth a listen.
Ireland’s Farmers Face Challenges Similar to Other Farmers Across the Globe
I’ve been reading in FarmIreland and other publications about the challenges farmers face. The challenges seem to be similar to those faced by farmers in other parts of the world. I asked Quinn for her take.
“I’ve worked with farmers in Ireland, Southeast Asia and the United States. The issues are very, very similar. Ireland’s issue is not conserving water, certainly [like California]…it’s looking at trying to get rid of water. But that affects water quality and has effects on fisheries, as well. But things like knowledge transfer, conversion to organic farms…those are challenges all over the world.”
Will Brexit Impact Ireland’s Agriculture Sector?
There’s a lot of speculation about this…and many unknowns.
Quinn said that “Membership in the European Union (EU) has benefited Ireland’s ag sector in some ways, and proved detrimental in others.” She explained that the EU has helped subsidize some agricultural “schemes” in Ireland (“schemes” being similar to our idea of an “initiative” or “program”).
She also made this key point:
“Ireland is made up of two countries, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is part of Great Britain). Free trade, particularly in an agricultural economy, is vital. Prices are already struggling. Brexit could have a huge influence on agricultural prices, but it’s still unknown. Some areas that have a strong agricultural tradition but don’t make lots of money rely on grants from the EU to help them survive. That may change.”
One of the EU-supported projects (in collaboration with a Irish agencies) Quinn mentioned is the BurrenLIFE project. This project has developed “a new model for sustainable agriculture” to help conserve endangered habitat and boost the local farm/food economy. Producers are gaining a competitive edge by marketing what they produce as “Burren” products.
To learn more the potential impacts of Brexit on Ireland’s agricultural sector, read this piece from the Irish Times.
A Little Irish Food History
To understand Ireland’s present, it helps to understand its past.
Potatoes were introduced to Ireland in the sixteenth century. They thrived in the Irish climate and became the staple crop in some of the country’s poorest regions. Blight struck in 1845 with disastrous results, leading to what we now call the Great Famine or the Great Hunger. Social, political and economic factors (fueled by racism, colonialism and greed) exacerbated the massive crop failure, resulting in years of mass starvation, disease and emigration. It is estimated that one million people starved and a million more left the country. By the time the Great Hunger ended, Ireland’s population had shrunk by an estimated 25-30%.
To learn more about the history of the Great Hunger, consider reading John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People. A fairly recent DNA analysis revealed the pathogen that caused the the Irish Potato Famine; an interesting read from Smithsonian.
In this piece, Stephen Scanlan (a sociology/anthropology professor at Ohio University) posits that the legacy of the Irish Famine continues to be felt today and is fueling a local food movement that he refers to as “Irish food nationalism.”
Recipes and Local Food
One American St. Patrick’s Day tradition may be a bit non-traditional, according to Quinn. “Not all the stereotypes are true (corned beef and cabbage) but most Irish people really do love to chat!” she says. Here are a handful of recipes that feature some things traditional and others that reflect a more modern take on Irish cuisine.
For the traditionally minded: colcannon and mustard champ, from the BBC. “…colcannon is a classic, comforting mash of potatoes, cabbage or kale and butter or cream, flavoured with scallions (spring onions), and the variations are endless. Champ is a similar, mashed potato favourite, flavoured with scallions, milk and butter.” And who could forget Irish Soda Bread?
A contemporary take: Mediterranean Monkfish and Potato Stew with Almond Crumb. Monkfish are found in Irish waters; this dish is a good use of some favorite Irish foods. From Irish chef/food personality Neven Maguire.
- @IrelandsFarmers. Each week, a different farmer Tweets. Managed by @IrishFarmerette (Lorna Sixsmith, a dairy farmer and author) and @nbclancy (Noel Clancy, a “sheep and suckler farmer” in Tipperary and Galway).
- @IFAmedia (Irish Farmers Association – similar to our Farm Bureau).
- @Bordbia (Irish Food Board – trade development/promotion for food, beverage, horticulture).
- @IrishTimesFood (major newspaper food section; mine their followers list for some terrific Irish chefs/food leaders).
- CatherineCleary (journalist/food writer).
- @IrishFoodies (account that connects Irish food bloggers, heavy emphasis on local food)
Have a great week, and don’t forget to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day!