Ireland is blessed with a climate that largely avoids extremes of hot and cold, which translates into an above-average number of opportunities for enjoying outdoor life, and for festive social gatherings. Such festivals provide organic farmers with an excellent opportunity to showcase their wares, and to impart a message of nearness to nature that should better resonate with those who are in an upbeat and receptive mood.
The ‘locally grown’ nature of organic food also fits in well with the tendency of festivals to celebrate a culture that is as ‘localised’ as possible, allowing consumers to feel as if they are contributing to their culture as well as supporting the ecology. So, though the message of organic farming is often spread through conferences – many of them organised by the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association [IOFGA] – it is festivals, farmers’ markets, and fairs that really allow for organic farmers to shine, allowing the public to ‘taste the difference’ for themselves.
The IOFGA hosts a number of event announcements on its home pages, which provide a quick way to get up to speed on gatherings either based around or featuring organic food. The bank holiday weekend of the first week of May (which is, of course, also the occasion of Beltane) provides one such opportunity, the Roscommon Lamb Festival. The festival will enter its 6th year of existence in 2013, and its stated mission is clearly an organic one, i.e. it is meant to “highlight the quality of locally-produced food, and to attract additional tourists to Roscommon, therefore boosting the local economy and benefitting primary producers and suppliers”.
To this end, visitors can not only enjoy the tastes and aromas of the sheep barbecue or global kitchen, but can participate in growing their own garden during the festival. Even though some of the festival events involve a fee of €10-15 for entry (e.g. the guided ‘food trail’ tour, or some of the musical performances and dances), the majority of festival features are free of charge (generally staffed by volunteers), and easily adaptable to festival-goers of all ages.
The Bloom Festival organized by Bord Bia [the Irish Food Board], meanwhile, takes advantage of the June holiday of Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh, and, as it centres largely around gardening, is an excellent opportunity to both offer and enjoy ‘artisan food’. Held in the Phoenix Park region of Dublin – which locals will already be familiar with for the people’s gardens situated there – the event has a high enough profile that it is often visited by dignitaries and heads of state. In fact, President McAleese claimed it was this event that inspired her family to take up vegetable growing in Roscommon.
Many of the culinary delights at the festival come from well-known luminaries within the gourmet food world, and nearly 50 local growers are represented in the Bord Bia Food Village. A “grow your own” stand will also be on hand providing advice to prospective growers. Passes to the event have, in recent years, cost around €25, though they can be had at discounted prices if you look hard enough.
Provided that temperate weather lasts into mid-September, another date not to exclude from your organic events calendar is National Organic Week. Though it falls in the second week of September, and therefore does not fully coincide with the summer weather, this week can provide organic farmers and growers with an ideal occasion for seeing the summer off. One event associated with National Organic Week includes the Portumna Forest Picnic set amid majestic woodlands several hundred years in age.
Organic farming in the modern age is still a relatively youthful enterprise in Ireland, with the longest-running farm (Drumeen Organic Farm) having been in existence for just over 30 years. There has been some criticism of the fact that, in spite of the (literally) “green” image that is often projected of Ireland to foreign nations, the local government has been reluctant to compete with other EU nations when it comes to one key aspect of the “green” lifestyle: namely, the provision of organic food alternatives.
Organic Trust public relations and development officer, Gavin Lynch, is at the forefront of this critique, regularly questioning what he sees as a duplicitous governmental attitude towards organic food products: namely, that the government “provides healthy eating advice on the one hand while serving frozen chips and sausage rolls on the other”.
Lynch’s stances are grounded in the realisation that the continental European nations are outpacing Ireland in an area that, for those outside of Europe, might rightfully be associated with the fertile soil of Ireland instead of, say, the Mediterranean climes of Spain and Italy. Yet both of those have vastly more hectarage set aside for organic farming that Ireland does. Ireland accounts for some 48,000 hectares of land meant for organic farming, which is also somewhat meagre when compared to the nearly one million hectares claimed by Germany. Incidentally, Germany is also the world’s largest consumer market for organic food products, and the German city of Bonn hosts the headquarters of the 710-member International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
The Organic Trust represented by Lynch is one of two Irish IFOAM members (the other being the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association). The former Irish organisation is certainly cognisant of Ireland’s lagging behind its continental partners, and is devoted to increasing the country’s organic profile internationally (it is the Organic Trust’s seal that can be seen on any food products within Ireland that are certified as organic). They are also instrumental in providing a number of grant schemes for farmers who wish to make a contribution in this regard, offering capital grants for the purchase of specialised machinery and other tools.
Lynch is currently spearheading a campaign that will convince the government to include the Irish Organic Sector in more Public Procurement contracts. To this end, he has cited not just the typical health or wellbeing concerns associated with organic food production and consumption, but has also stressed the ability of the organic sector to re-vitalise the rural economy or jobs market, as well as to offer significant cash rewards to those who contribute directly to a more ecologically sustainable development of agriculture. Potential organic farmers may be interested in the 2013 organic farming scheme, a measure instituted to encourage an organic farming transition by awarding €283 per hectare during conversion, and up to €142 per hectare once full organic status has been reached.
Another point of interest for any prospective organic farmers – and not exclusively in Ireland – is the fossil fuel usage required by this activity when compared with ‘conventional’ farming. Many sources say that, when comparing the two, there is a dramatically higher usage of fossil fuel used to synthesise the fertilisers and pesticides associated with the latter, while it is difficult to find any sources claiming organic farming processes are more expensive to fuel. Organic processes like composting have been regularly argued as alternatives to the fuel-hungry process of creating fertilisers, and this is certainly something to consider within an Irish economy that is largely reliant upon the importation of oil.