Saturday morning got going with a talk from WWOOF founder Sue Coppard. Sue started the organisation in 1971 in the UK, and it has gone on to have thousands of members in countries all around the world. Not only does wwoofing offer superb learning and travel opportunities for people of all ages, but it also provides much needed help and support for hard-working farmers and growers.
Next came a discussion session on how to be a successful WWOOF host. Seasoned hosts Suzie Cahn and Wendy Nairn, both from Wicklow, had plenty of tales to tell about their successes and challenges, and soon we were all pitching into a lively discussion. While all of us had some less positive stories to share, the overwhelming feeling was that hosting wwoofers was a rewarding experience, that we enjoyed their company as much as their help, and that the feedback from wwoofers showed that they really benefitted from their placements and learned a lot about life as well as farming. 2 themes emerged very strongly;
Language. A lot of us had had problems with the language barrier, particularly when emails had been written in good English so we were not expecting communication problems. We all agreed that it would be easier if wwoofers warned us that their English was poor, but we also decided to set up a list on WWOOF Ireland of hosts with language skills who could help out in an emergency.
I then got to talk about the new Irish Smallholders Association, and as most people in the room would class as smallholders I got some great feedback and suggestions on what they would need as members. While there was an existing association and website, this has fallen out of use and there is definitely a need for small producers to share information and advice, access resources, supplies and training and also get together and support each other. Watch this space, as the newly-revamped Smallholders Association will be up and running by May. There will be a new website with discussion forums, pages for ordering supplies and (by popular demand!) a page to explain all those pesky regulations with all your application forms in one place. We will also be running complete smallholders courses, and one day learning and networking events. More news coming soon, but in the meantime if you'd be interested in becoming a member please send me an email to sign up for a special introductory rate.
The gathering finished up on Sunday morning with a panel discussion on CSA farming where I joined Sarah Fleming from Cloughjordan Community Farm, John Dolan of Bantry CSA and Aimi Pinder of Kinsale Green Growers to share our experiences on 3 of Ireland's pioneer projects. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a system of farming where a group of consumers become members of a farm enterprise and develop a close relationship with the farmer. Veg, milk and meat are paid for by regular subscriptions which are paid up-front, giving the farmer the means to produce the food.
It was very interesting to hear about the different ways that a scheme could operate... all 3 of these projects started at a similar time, but have very individual characters. In Cloughjordan, a wide range of food is produced all year round for a weekly fee, and members help themselves to what they need from a distribution point. In Bantry, shares are sold in a single bulk crop (potatoes) and the full price is paid at the start of the year. In Kinsale, a packed bag of vegetables is delivered weekly, for 30 weeks of the year.
All of us had experimented with oats and been frustrated by trying to proccess them! (See my previous blog on cereals for all the details) Bantry and Kinsale have given up on oats for now, while Cloughjordan still grows them for animal feed. Some groups were led by consumers who had found a farmer to work with, others were led by a farmer who had advertised for members. We had all learned a lot aboutset-up costs, setting realistic goals, keeping our members satisfied and trying not to be overworked. Once again, students and wwoofers had proved to be a really valuable resource for all of us. Considering that the first Irish CSA is only 3 1/2 years old, we are doing pretty well... there are now 7 or 8 CSA projects around the country, with more on the way. To put that into perspective, CSA really got started in the USA 35 years ago, and now there are an estimated 3,000 projects in operation there. To reach the same saturation in Ireland, we would be looking at around 70 farms... and we still have another 30 years to get there! However, with small farmers facing ever greater challenges, I think that the supportive structure of CSA will appeal to many and that we will see the spread happen much faster than that. If you are a food producer, or a consumer, and you'd be interested in setting up a CSA in your area, you can get great advice and information from Cloughjordan CSA (link above), join the Facebook group CSA Ireland, or get information packs from the Soil Association. Go for it, and good luck!
Big thanks to Annie King and the team at WWOOF Ireland for putting together such a great event. Between chatting, learning, touring, eating (oh yes, and drinking) it was a really terrific weekend... nice work if you can get it!