Friday, 30 September 2011

What to do?

Picture from Sheep 101

I have been away for a few days and I sort of lost my posting schedule, I'm one of those people still refusing to get a smartphone. I was in Sarajevo for a weekend to visit a dear friend. I was so excited when I left that I forgot my camera and I couldn't find a disposable one in Sarajevo. Therefore, No pictures but lots of good memories.
It's time to talk about P.'s and my plans and about the way we want to use this land's potential.
Whizzie has of course her own plans and I'll probably write about those too, if she wants, but for now let's talk sheep.
In fact this is what we want to breed: sheep! I love sheep! they are so cute! Ok I'm joking, that's not why we went in that direction :)
Sheep were almost an obligate choice. As you might know, if you want to sustain your animals with the land you have at your disposal throughout the whole year, you have to consider animal density as a crucial factor. Animal density is calculated using the so called Livestock Units (LUs). One hectar of pasture is sufficient to sustain 1.0 LU through the whole year and this corresponds to an adult dairy cow. Now, here's a good page with some comparisons: Grazing Livestock Units equivalents, and another one with pigs too: Eurostat.
So, for an 8 hectare farm, dairy cows, horses or beef would not be a good choice because you'd be able to keep at most 10 of them and even using intelligent market strategies it would be difficult to get a decent amount of money out of such a small number of animals. Plus, these are big animals, need big housing solutions and big milking facilities.
Another possible solution I explored at the beginning was breeding sows/pigs for the production of cured meats. Unfortunately the land at our disposal is not suitable for extensive/outdoor pig rearing and it's actually a bit of a waste. Pigs thrive in woods in marginal steep areas and it is a kind of production that is coming back in Italy where we have lots of those woods with oaks, holm oaks, chestnuts and so on, but putting them on green, lush pasture? No thanks. They do that in the UK but the only difference with pigs reared intensively is that they live in a field, but you still have to provide 95% of the diet. A bit of a waste of space if you ask me.
So we were left really with two options: chickens and sheep. There isn't a rabbit culture in Ireland and like in the UK they are considered either a pest or a pet :)
Regarding the chickens, hens, eggs and so on, there is a lot of competition already, it seems like it has become the new sector of enterprise for every single hippie in West Cork. So we might get a reasonable number of hens but only to optimise pasture gains (more later on this).
Sheep sound good because 1 adult sheep is considered to be between 0.1 and 0.2 LUs. This means that Whizzie's land could sustain at least 40 adult sheep. Now, if we were talking just meat/wool breeds the figure would have been closer to 80 animals but money in meat and wool is very little and we want to go dairy. A better figure for dairy sheep in terms of density is probably closer to 0.2 LUs.
Dairy sheep sound a lot better because although the wool is of lower quality, the meat is pretty much still there and the added value you can get from transforming milk into cheese is among the biggest around (it's up there with cured meats).
So, I'll leave you with that. Start imagining beautiful dairy sheep and lots of cheese, I can tell you, this image has been haunting us in our sleep for quite a while.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Environmentally and economically sustainable

Picture from PapekPhotography - Click it for large version.

Hi readers! Tough times around here but I'll make an effort and drop the usual weekly post.
As you could gather from the last post, the farm is a gorgeous place with lots of potential. Will we make it? Fuck knows! but we'll definitely try.
As many of you might know, there is not much money in conventional farming nowadays for farms of this size. Unless you have huge capitals, you go super intensive and you have at your disposal hundreds of acres, it's better you forget about conventional agriculture, whatever you want to produce, let it be grains, milk, meat or veggies, you won't get rich.
Therefore, for such small farms, with limited capitals and volumes, you necessarily need to find other ways.
The only hope for such enterprises is to concentrate on a produce that has some sort of added value, something the consumer is willing to pay extra for. Needless to say there is a wide array of possible ways to create added value in a product. A classic example is the organic certification, or any sort of labelling, at least it was years ago, now that it has become a worldwide business it has become more expensive for small farmers and the added value has decreased a lot.
Other ways involve targeting local typical productions, niche markets, artisanal produce, rustic local breeds, honey from non-sugar-fed bees and so on. Here the added value is due to the fact that you are offering a product for which it is required a rare set of skills, or that is linked to a specific trerritory, or it is simply produced in a more sustainable way and therefore is less abundant. Hence the higher price.
Examples in this area are possibly infinite.
Another way to get even more money from small farms like this is to adopt what we call in Italy a "Filiera Corta" (short processing chain).
Cutting a long story short, if you are rearing fibre producing animals such as merino sheep, you won't be selling row fibre but instead jumpers, hats, gloves and scarves. This way your product won't go around the market increasing in price at every step of the textile and retail industry, you'll be very competitive in terms of prices you can offer to the consumer (because you bypass several steps of the processing chain) and you have complete control over the quality of the final product. This allows you to add even more extra value through the ways we explored earlier, by customising your products.
There are also downsides in such an approach. You have to work a lot more to get to your final product and therefore acquire several specific skills and extra facilities to transform and process your raw matter into your final product.
If in the case of wool it is easy to imagine that such facilities would be quite expensive and that the knowledge required would be vast, for raw matters such as milk and meat, veggies and other product of the land the task at hand is definitely not impossible.
In conclusion, instead of selling milk you sell cheese, instead of meat you sell salami and prosciutto, smoked and cured meats, instead of fresh vegetables you sell conserved Mediterranean style grilled aubergines and pickled onions, instead of soy beans you sell tofu, instead of wheat you sell bread and cookies and why not, instead of barley you can specialise in malts and drink lots and lots of beer :)
The last thing you need to keep in mind for small size farms, especially if there are several people trying to live off the land, is that diversification is a MUST.
Diversifying production is a must because none of your possible productions is big enough to allow you to overcome difficult moments in the trade.
So, keep all this in mind and wait for the next post :) we have quite a precise plan but, in the meantime, suggestions are welcome!

Monday, 5 September 2011

"The" Land

Now that you know where and who, why and more or less when, it's time to give you some information about the property that Whizzie and Sir Lynex bought, without giving too much info on its location (otherwise you'll just flood to the place). It's important to speak first about the land characteristics because the agricultural-farming potential is clearly related to the layout. As we say in Italy, apple trees do not make pears. At the top of the post is a map of the property. The red line is the outer border of the land, the blue line is the main road to nowhere, the green line is the access road to the farm that brings to the old farm buildings and the turquoise line is a narrow path that cuts the property between the pastures and the bog, leading to the neighbour's property up the hill. The property is approx 21 acres (8.5 hectares), the highest part is the northern bit (200 meters a.s.l.) and the lowest is the southern part, down the main road (160 meters). This means that it is beautifully exposed south, which in Ireland is definitely a plus :). As you can see, approximately 5 hectares of the property are good grazing pastures. They look like this:

The pasture composition in terms of types of plants is good and diverse, there are some weeds and reeds, especially in the two grazing areas north of the green lane, but nothing that can't be improved by sorting out the drainage. The boggy bit on the northern part of the property is beautifully diverse from a biological point of view and, although it has gone a bit wild like the rest of the property and could do with some light grazing, it is fairly stable and has great potential for one or two wind turbines. In fact there are rocks which are high, very exposed to strong, constant winds. Fencing and gates are in place and some of the gates need replacing but the fencing is fairly new. The property lies in a relatively undeveloped area between two small towns of the west Cork area, but has good potential. It is in fact close to popular tourism areas, the sea and the internationally famous food scene of Cork. As you can see from the image, Whizzie has already started some work and apart from setting herself up nice and cosy for the winter, she has been putting down trees for coppicing and an orchard, a polytunnel and a veggie garden. She is now working on setting up raised beds for next year and there are plans to get a swimming pond for Sir Linex, who could get there by driving the 350 cc brake-less quad bike that Whizzie bought in an attempt to murder him :) Get those brakes fixed guys! Ah! and she got hens only a few days ago! What are their names Whizzie?

That's all folks! What should I do with all this goodness? I'll tell you next week.