by John McHugh
I am the fifth generation of my family to live, work and enjoy this land and owe a great debt to all who have gone before me that can only be paid back to those who come after me. Most farmers strive to pass on the land in which they have guardianship over in a more fertile and productive condition than they have received it in, however the widespread environmental destruction happening all around us in has brought many people including myself to question the approaches I was taking and how we define productivity and fertility.
My own history involved most of my career as an intensive conventional dairy farmer who followed the blueprints set for profitable and productive farming. In 2015, I began to seek an understanding of many of the problems we face in society and more specifically relating to agriculture, leading me to a very different perspective from what I had, and started a journey that will hopefully lead to producing food in sustainable co-operation with nature.
The journey has so far led me to realms of Organic & Biodynamic farming, the Masanobu Fukuoka (author of the one straw revolution) inspired Natural farming method and Permaculture. We are confronted with daily evidence of how our exploitive and destructive practices are leading to degradation and devastation and even threatening our future existence on this planet, resulting in “Sustainability” being the buzz word of our time. When we start to dig a little, linking symptoms with causes, we begin to see how little of our practices are in any way sustainable. One can easily despair at what seems an insurmountable challenge and resign to burying our heads back in the sand or hope that others sort this mess out for us.
In July 2018 I came across a post written by Annette Morris Keane on the ambitious plans of Earth school Laois, the vision and integrity of these plans immediately grabbed my attention, the deep concern for the current state of our environment was unquestionable, they were clearly looking past the mere symptoms of problems to help create a brighter future for the generations to come. Shortly afterwards, I met Annette along with Tobias Pederson, a man who has given the bulk of his life over to working with people with special needs and social disadvantage through the medium of social farming using biodynamic practices, and with this meeting the Clondarrig community farm idea was conceived.
Clondarrig is located in the parish of Ballyfin, five kilometres west of Portlaoise town. It could now be described as a hidden townland, away from main roads but in times past it was very much a hub of activity, with a graveyard, a school, a water powered grain mill and a dance hall all located here.
Humanity has a long history of trying to tame and dominate nature, and as we reach new heights in technological capabilities the destruction seems only to speed up. It seems we are arriving at a fork in the path, one where we continue to use our profit driven science and technology to transcend nature in a battle that can only produce one winner or to branch off learning to apply our science and its deeper insights to further understand, align and alloy with nature where we can both thrive in co-operation. This second path is the one I choose and the one that the Clondarrig Farm project is intended to facilitate. This pathway is overgrown and obscured by brambles and briars, but our chances of success can be greatly increased if we walk this path together as a community of like-minded individuals.
Our lives are busier than ever before, long working hours, long commutes, large mortgages, health insurance, education expenses, the list goes on and all keep us very much in fear of straying off the current path but I believe together we can find a way.
Permaculture, with its intelligent design, offers a glimmer of hope, a method of co-operation with nature founded on resilience and regeneration, however when we engage with it we realise that it doesn’t align very well with our current consumerist society based on cheap energy and destructive practices. Our current system separates out nature into individual components and then exploits the efficiencies gained from the division of labour. As a result, we have separate dairy farms, pig farms, cereal farms, vegetable farms etc, all capable of large outputs of cheap and not fully costed commodities that feed this consumerist system. However, nature works as a synergy of plants and animals operating in harmony, and its functioning is greatly compromised when we separate it out and break it apart. Permaculture systems will have many diverse outputs but will lose a lot of the efficiencies gained from the division of labour, leading to more labour in harvesting and marketing of all of these diverse outputs.
On top of this, it could take 15 years and longer before significant yields are achieved from some components of a permaculture system. Our current model rarely thinks that long term, with most of the focus on producing output and profit in the current season or at most looking at a 5 year plan.
Does this mean we abandon this idea, or can we as a community work together to overcome these obstacles as many communities around the world have done successfully and are now sharing their knowledge and wisdom so others may follow suit?
Rudolf Steiner gave the agricultural course in 1924, which became the inspiration for Biodynamic agriculture. His methods involve a much more holistic view of farms that are again often incompatible with our current system that doesn’t recognise anything beyond the material world (slowly this is starting to change as applications of the quantum sciences gradually increase). Within Biodynamics is an understanding of the power of human consciousness, methods to utilise this and to enliven our soils and vastly increase the quality of our food.
Masanobu Fukuoka’s Natural Farming philosophy also offers hope. He devised a system of farming, similar to Permaculture, but he also addressed the growing of the everyday staple foods that sustain us, which are mainly annual crops, in harmony with nature. His methods involve no destructive inputs or machinery use, and for a minimum of work he could obtain well above average yields relative to systems using large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Years of trial and error went into his system before he finally achieved recognised success. As individuals, our pride is often derived through the eyes of others, or at least how we perceive other individuals see us. Farmers are no different and this makes it difficult to stray from tried and trusted methods, risking crop failures, reduced profits or even a loss.
Do we abandon any thoughts of attempting to adapt Natural Farming methods to Irish conditions, or once again can we work together to find a way?
Our current system measures and rewards food quality through a very limited prism, can we work together towards a vastly more holistic approach and in turn gain access to food of vastly superior quality?
If we still have your interest, maybe you can work with us to help realise our mission.
My hope is for the Clondarrig Community Farm project to be a space where those who feel drawn to the ideals above can co-create in an environment that allows them to be realized. We are opening the door now for the first steps towards these and many more ideas and opportunities for those who feel aligned. Clondarrig aims to become a supportive space that facilitates ethical innovation, co -operation with one another and with this living land we depend so much on. I would be proud to honour the debt I owe to the generations before me in this way and to leave a legacy built on such a high intention for the generations that come after me