The Potential of the Traditional Irish Farm – Taste Council Summer School #futureisfood

Following posts from a Taste Council conference in Wicklow.


A significant proportion of Irish farm enterprises are officially categorised as economically unviable. An alternative route to viability is possible: one which aims to add value to Irish farm family produce by capitalising on environmental, social and cultural distinctiveness of this produce using the ‘Middle Agriculture’ Model.

Dr. Aine Macken Walsh, Teagasc


Aine started with the standard incomes of farmers and looked at the proportion earned from various sources.

The majority of production happens at below cost – ie products are sold below cost and income subsidies are used to cover the gap.

She then showed that the number of farms is reducing – over 14 years 33,000 farms have disappeared and this has lead to a substantial increase in average farm sizes. It also means a reduction in the number of farmers.

Trends in Europe show a reduction in farmer numbers are matched with a negative impact on the social and economic rural environment. There is also an environmental impact as farmers get disassociated with the land they live on.

Routes towards viability?

* Lowest cost OR

* Differentiation

These 2 basic choices leave mid-sized farms at a disadvantage (US Dept of Ag) as they cannot specialise (too big) nor can they scale up (too small). They differentiate between vertically integrated open market sectors and focused niches.

She they showed that less that 5% of Irish farms have diversified and .4% have engaged in on-farm processing. (2011 study). [wow, that seems very low – I guess I have contact with a disproportionate number of the diversifying ones, Keith]

Barriers To Change

These range from economic through to social and cultural. The latter were interesting as as a generalisation farmers are hooked on producing crops or animals – that is what matters to them and their peers (occupational identity). They may lack the skill sets, experience or even exposure to alternatives.

Addressing the challenge

Both Product and Process need to be considered. Can a standard farm product be marketed from the farm as a premium item.

There could be demand for Middle Agriculture products – sustainably produced but not expensive. So a co-op of farmers working together in a region on a sustainable basis and connecting directly with consumers on the back of the local and regional heritage. Tell the story. [I am taking it that organic is not what is being discussed here, just a return to elements of more traditional farming, keith]

The Product

She reckoned here that most Irish farms fall within the sweet spot of this Middle Agriculture space – they are less intense than overseas equivalent & they usually have a family heritage and culture. They have an “authentic Irish richness”.

Reference now to Regina Sexton (UCC) and her work on Ireland’s authentic regional foods which would have an appeal to niche markets abroad.

A further point here is that Middle Agriculture compliments both the scaled commodity farming and also the artisan sector. There is “no revolution” required here – there is no enormous challenge in the mind set.

Farmers and the Value Chain

Interesting here – she says that farmers need to move up the marketing and distribution chain here so that they morph from input suppliers to partners. This will bring economic benefits as well as strengthen the link with consumers.

She said here that she did not seeing this applying to artisan producers – they are individual businesses with individual products.

What needs to be done?

Back to the future – the Cooperative model.

Traditionally – Local coops with 10 to 15 members and then Centralised coops with 1,000’s of members – getting closer to a private or public limited company.

Alternative – federated coops which comprise of local coops linked together at national level with common branding and marketing. These would need facilitators and would promote:

* Genuine Farm Ownership

* Good Governance

* Exploring regional food heritage

* Best practice in farming

More on federated coops. A common seal to endorse food products, 3rd party certification, professional marketing. There is a working group in place on this including Teagasc, Bord Bia, ICOS and a host of others.


Kevin Sheridan, TASTE Council, Sheridan’s Cheesemongers

Dr. Aine Macken Walsh (Teagasc)
Denis Carroll (Kerry Quality Lamb Group)
Peter Young (Farmer, Producer, Journalist)
Pat Smyth (General Secretary, IFA)
Marian Byrne (Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine)
Mark Winterbotham (Farmer Producer, Director Organic Trust)


Mark – locally grown products and they are price setters, not takers. Very interesting point.

Denis – he belongs to a coop of farmer producers which he reckons could fit in with the Federated Coop Middle Agriculture model outlined.

Discussion on the commodity route. Aine – leads to rural depopulation and there is a delinkage between producers and the market which then homogenises the product.

Mention from floor of NZ dairy sector – massively increased farm sizes and very depopulated country with the disappearance of the family farm. This also has an impact on tourism and a lack of variety of end products (farm cheeses for example). This would mean that Irish food has no differentiation on the global market. The family farm can support the food story. (contributor is Ben)

Next from floor – Liam Dunne. Spoke about the importance of Middle Agriculture farmers who have been largely ignored due to focus on scale and intensity. However they provide the majority of employment. He agreed that they loose out economically because they sell into the homogenous market. They are also ignored at policy level because they are underrepresented [where are the IFA in this?, keith]

He reckoned that the review of the Single Farm Payment can be used to lubricate the process of moving this sector to the Federated model.

Pat Smyth (IFA) reckoned that Teagasc have important part to play to meaningfully support this. He also said that they have 89,000 members, average size 64 acres and a lot of part time farmers within that. [I guess he is saying that they represent those Middle Ag farms, keith]. He also referenced Leader and said their rules are inflexible when it comes to supporting on farm enterprise. [not what i have mostly heard from farm based producers tbh, keith]

Mark – the age gap and profile of Irish farmers does not help. He reckons that younger farmers are more likely to support a shift to the Federated model yet majority of farmers over 55.

Kevin Sheridan – panel agrees the need for education and asked what are the roles of Teagasc and IFA to support and lead this? Specifically asked Pat Smyth what IFA is doing to support this? Pat waffled on in response, complimented the Taste Council, made a reference to what Teagasc can do and referred to the economic challenge facing Ireland. Spoke then about sustainable agriculture (including stuff like water use) and then sounded like a politician taking about the massive opportunity, equity and fairness, Superquinn and global multi-nationals, EU legislation needed. Not a single word on what the IFA will actually do.

Kevin went back and asked question again – would IFA recommend the Federated Model to their members? Pat said that farmers are very open to anything which will actually work, farmers are individuals but we have had some of the best cooperatives in the world. The IFA will work with Teagasc to support this.

Marian (Dept Ag) said that the solution will be found in a variety of areas and not soley in the Federated model. Referenced for example working groups of local farmers sharing best practices. She also made reference to Leader funding and again does not directly reference that it was suspended for the food sector in late 2010 and has yet to be reinstated.

Oliver Moore (UCC and organic blogger) – asks about barriers to Federated model and specified both processing and also retail. Does the existing mainstream power over both significantly impact on the potential success of the Federated model?

Pat (IFA) – reality that we need successful processors and reality is Irish processors are global players. [he likes his scale does Pat, keith]. He does reckon there is need for more transparency and openness in processing sector. He hopes that trust and transparency will bring processors closer to farmers. Kevin directed the processor question to Denis.

Denis said that their producer coop was squeezed by the processors and so they moved outside of that model. He would like to see open bidding from processors who pitch to process farmers produce. So he reckons that farmers need to lead this – up to them to change things. [like this guy, guessing he has some friction with Pat/IFA Keith]. Kevin asks Pat does he see IFA providing this leadership? Pat – IFA depends on farmers, Denis is a farmer, he is a leader. Change is slow. New generation needs to be educated. [waffle, waffle, waffle, keith]

Aine – made point here that Ollies question lead into Denis wanting to be a price fixer not taker. She said that Pat was correct on processors being globally successful but focus should be on farm income not success of producers. She agreed with Ollie that there is no premium for REPS producers despite their increased sustainability.

Q from floor – John Mulcahy, Tourism Ireland. Agreed that tourists expect a varied landscape and hints of traditional farming. 8M plus people arrive with this in mind. He referenced Denis and the farmers on their peninsula – without their activity the Ring of Kerry would be a different product.

Observation from Siobhan, small farm and food producer in West Clare. Agreed with Denis that the solution lies with individual farmers. She said that farmers reluctant to do this – as an artisan producer her neighbours regard her as very different and they don’t want to be different. She shared her experience of dealing with retails and multiples – they are interested in the food and farm story.

From the floor – large disconnect between local produce and what is served as main course in restaurants – specifically veg. He referenced potatoes as an example.

From the floor – Myrtle Allen said that there is a chef’s organisation which works to source local food stuff – Eurotorque. She reckoned that there has been a slippage in the standard of normal/traditional Irish foods such as cheddar cheese. We should upgrade to gourmet standards in Ireland and we can easily do it.

Finishing Q from Kevin – Do we need another model? We do have good artisan sector but it is different from the Middle Ag space.

Denis – yes we do however do not underestimate the work involved! He reckons top down resource required to support the central element of the Federated model. He also said that around the Ring of Kerry you will find it difficult to eat the local lamb – as much down to farmers as chefs. And if accountants run the restaurant/hotel it will never happen. Finally from him – retailers and the power they have comes from customers. If we do not buy they do not have that power and they will change.

Pat……From IFA perspective it has been very useful to hear the discussion and he will bring it back. Resources required – we will look to Europe…..Pitch for REPS supports etc – keep them there.

Peter – agreeing again that farmers need to take the reigns here. Also look at the Federated model in the EU. Farmers are not in competition with each other.

Marian – they have started a series of regional food structures in conjunction with Bord Bia. [not sure of this reference, keith].

Mark – agreeing again with Denis. The processors power needs to be changed – they control too much of the marketplace. As do the retailers. Spread the margin wider.

Aine – bottom up is required – farmer owned and run. Teagasc identified the Federated model as a solution to farmers moving to higher value products. The legacy of Meitheal and our Coops would help to deliver this. She went through a variety of Teagasc initiatives which can support this over the next 4 to 5 years.


5 thoughts on “The Potential of the Traditional Irish Farm – Taste Council Summer School #futureisfood

  1. Great post Keith. Lovely to hear excatly what is happening today. Coming myself from a farming background I went to college to study culinary arts Sr dit. Great backbone to many elements of food business. This year I decided to go back to college to so masters in food and also the graduate certificate with teagasc in agriculture. Knowing the basics of agri, keen to learn more as big interest into beef industry. Shocked by how the course was firstly taught by certain teachers in teagasc and secondly we could have been back in the seventies between course material, ideas and innovation. Majority of us at the course want to play part in agri, make a living and have passion for it. Education is key. Combination of all elements of food business. Attitude by the actual education board must change first.

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  4. Thanks for sharing that information Keith. I see a key role for a coop movement in the future of small-scale, environmentally-sustainable farming in Ireland that empowers farmers, values quality produce and integrates it with the local economies via farmers markets, box schemes, restaurants, and both nationally and internationally through the reach of the tourist trade and slow food movement. We have an incredible asset that is not appreciated by the majority. Seems like it is always a few enlightened people shouting against the wind when it comes to talking about ‘other ways of doing things in Irish farming’. It feels like the Irish agricultural sector has been hijacked for decades by a very conservative, productivist mindset that turns to the EU for CAP reform and never seems to come up with innovative solutions themselves. The existing model is broken yet there are huge barriers to bringing alternative thinking to the table. The SYSTEM is strongly geared towards the productivist model with ineffective tweaking around the peripheries. But there are the innovators and the doggedly persistent entrepreneurs who are putting Irish artisanal food on the world stage and trying to drag us out of the dark ages of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There are the incredible experiments going on in local areas around the country such as the Burren LIFEproject that show another way. I am hopeful for the future.

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