So this blog post has been a long time coming. I have discovered over the last 5 weeks that I need to make sure that I take some time off in between farms during this trip to actually write and edit photos. Lesson learned. This will be the first installment of 3 about my 2 weeks in Ireland. I arrived in Dublin at about 5 am on the 10th of July. Since 5 am wasn’t a great time to go knocking on the door of my new Couch Surfer International host, I took advantage of the free airport wifi and stayed there until a more reasonable hour. I took the bus into Dublin and found my way to my host, Owen’s House in Donney Carney also known as Dublin 9. We went for a rainy hike in Howth (just south of Dublin) on the coast where there are amazing cliffs and a beautiful little seaside village. The hike up the cliffs was a little tougher than I expected but I had only had a few hours sleep the night before. After the hike we went and had a fish feast at Owen’s house, after which I almost immediately went to bed. I was exhausted but it was an amazing welcome to Ireland.
I had about four days to spend in Dublin before beginning my first volunteer position. I woke up early the next day (thank you jet lag) and Owen suggested going out to a lettuce farm north of Dublin that he had done some chimney work on during the year previous. I had obviously not gotten in touch with this farm ahead of time so we just rucked up and I introduced myself. Luckily, most farmers and growers are happy to meet other folks in the biz and this was no exception to the rule. After explaining a bit about what I was doing with my travels, the man in charge was happy to oblige us with a tour and answer my many questions, though he was quick to stipulate that the farm was in no way organic. In fact, he was an organic consultant on the property to manage things temporarily while the head grower was away which from my perspective was great. It was interesting to talk to him about the practices on the farm, many of which he disagreed with. I am choosing not to name this farm since it was an unofficial visit and I wasn’t that happy with their over-all farming practices. However, you can always learn something from any farm whether you agree with the way that they do things or not.
As I said, this farm is conventional and it is cultivated on an industrial scale. They have an automated soil blocker and an automatic seeder. The seeded trays are then put into a heated germination room for a few days (since it is too cool most of the year to get good germination rates) then moved to a heated glass house until they fully emerge. After that they are moved to another heated glass house for a week to 10 days after which they are moved to the unheated poly tunnel and finally hardened off for planting. The farm grows carrots, cabbage and lettuce, all of which perform well in the cool, wet Irish summer, though this climate does promote fungal and mildew growth which can be difficult for growers to contend with. They sprayed various fungicides in combination with planting hybrid, resistant seeds. The farm is also subject to a variety of pests including wire worm, root maggot, cabbage moth and cut worms. This brings us to my major discovery while at this farm; I was disappointed to learn that they are using Neonicotiniods. In fact almost all of the seed being used on the farm had been pre-treated. I was mostly disappointed because I had thought that the use of these pesticides had been banned in the European Union. For those of us farming in the US, the EU is always held up as a pillar of good in terms of their conventional farming practices. Though to be fair, conventional agriculture is more strictly regulated in the EU in comparison with the US.
Neonicatiniods were first introduced by Shell in the 1980s and then went on to be produced by Bayer in the 90’s. It was originally believed that these pesticides were a good alternative to those being used at the time because of the lower levels of toxicity to mammals and birds. They are now the most widely used pesticides in the world and that is a big problem. There have been various studies linking the use of these pesticides with our current bee population decline also known as Honey Bee Colony Collapse. The bees can pick up toxic levels of these chemicals from the pollen and nectar of flowering plants and it is believed that exposure can cause them to become more susceptible to parasites and pathogens.
It is also believed that if the level of toxicity is high enough the bees may become disorientated and unable to make it back to the hive. The European Union has banned the use of certain types of Neonicotiniods and they have suspended the use of them on flowering crops. However they are still widely used on non-flowering crops such as lettuces, root vegetables and brassicas. Unfortunately there have also been several studies that show a persistence of the toxin in the soil months to years after exposure. That means that though they are used on a plant that will not attract pollinators one season, a flowering plant could be planted the following season and after no treatment, potentially still uptake the chemical from the soil into the pollen and nectar. Banning these pesticides is hot button issue amongst conventional farmers as many say that their crops will not survive without the use of them. The good news is that this issue is currently under a lot of debate and these new studies are calling the use of these pesticides into question. There are many petitions and organizations that are fighting for the plight of the honey bee and international governments are beginning to respond.
I spent the next few days in meetings with a few of the food projects I would be visiting later in the trip. I also spent a lot of time touring myself around a few of Dublin’s many community gardens. The two that I visited are both part of Dublin Community Growers. DCG is an open organization consisting of about 40 community gardens scattered throughout Dublin. They help these gardens to get up and running and hold events throughout the year to promote the benefits of gardens within the city. They hold themselves to organic practices, high animal welfare standards and meet once a month in an open forum to discuss current events, local community issues and the benefits of community gardens towards environmental stewardship and social inclusion.
The project I visited the first day is called Mud Island Community Garden. The core group began meeting and planning in 2009. In October 2011 they were given permission by the city council to start their project and build their garden.
The garden is located in North Strand in Dublin 3 and since they have an open volunteer day on Saturdays, I decided to show up and donate my time. The garden was great and already buzzing with volunteers by the time I showed up. There were a lot of children, some of whom had obviously been going to the garden for quite a while. They were working diligently on weeding, planting and saving seeds and some harvest as well. The adults that were there were adamant that the children should and would be included in all aspects of the garden. Mud Island is run with a rotating door policy where in, all folks living in the area are invited to participate. When you show up and work, you are offered a part of that days harvest. There was an obvious core of folks that showed up every week as well as a few drop-ins like myself that were just checking it out. That day we were harvesting potatoes, onions, carrots, leeks, currants, gooseberries, plums and herbs. I took home a little basil and rosemary for my efforts to make dinner for my host.
The next day I went to explore a different part of the city and found the Broadstone Community Garden. There was no one there to talk to that day but the garden was open and so I toured myself around the plot. It consisted of several large raised beds radiating out from a central tree. The entirety was ringed by a beautiful living fence that was really impressive and there were several bean and pea trellis structures that were also beautifully made. The garden was started in 2012 and is maintained by about 20 members from the surrounding community.
Community gardens are so important, especially in large urban areas. These gardens create community, they create a space for people with a common interest to come together and work the land. They provide tools with which to teach our children the basic principles behind food production as well as the importance of food provenance. They can provide quality, nutritional food to those that may not be able to afford it from the store and last but not least they create oasis in the urban desert for pollinators, animals, birds and humans alike. No matter how removed we may be from rural agricultural communities, it is still so important to get ones hands into the soil and feel a connection with the land.
This concludes Part 1 of my Ireland journey. Next week the post will come out on Monday and we will continue with a Monday posting after that. If you are interested in receiving an email to update you about what I am doing and new posts coming out, please subscribe on my home page. I promise that your address will be held safe and I won’t email you too often. Thanks.
***UPDATE*** Due to some technical difficulties (ie: terrible wifi connection) the new post will not be put up today. I'll be traveling until Wednesday and hopefully I will be able to put it up then. Sorry for the delay, these are the troubles with travel blogging.