Agriculture and rural development
All-out diversification in the Cavan-Monaghan LEADER area (Ireland)
From agricultural enterprise to rural enterprise
Bordering Northern Ireland, counties Cavan and Monaghan are primarily agricultural. But diversification being a must, a number of farmers have taken up a second activity which, quite often, is supplanting the first. Hence, some farms are turning into genuine artisanal enterprises. With LEADER to assist them.
"Ten years ago, cooperation between people in the south and the north was very difficult..." Michael Heaney has come as a neighbour to present the experience of the Inishowen group, of which he is the director, at the seminar attended today in Monaghan by all the LEADER groups operating on both sides of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Aim: launch a process of sustainable cross-border cooperation. For more than a border, these 12 areas concerned share the same difficulties: a certain isolation, lack of jobs, rural exodus and a potential for development held back by the politico-religious conflict that has been simmering in a more or less latent fashion in Northern Ireland, with negative consequences on the neighbouring counties in the South.
"How do you want us to attract tourists or investors for that matter when you have this battlefield image, even if in the rural communities, Catholics and Protestants get along quite well?," deplores Adge King, director of the Cavan-Monghan Rural Development Co-op, a cooperative that manages the LEADER programme of an area doubly isolated because of the border and its relative distance from the sea.
Created in 1991 at the initiative of managers of agricultural cooperatives, this local action group comprises the main socio-economic actors and sectors of the two counties of Cavan and Monaghan: dairy cooperatives, agricultural associations, village associations, local authorities, Teagasc (national centre for research and agricultural and rural popularisation), financial institutions, business leaders, etc. "By giving it the institutional impetus and the financial means necessary to open up to all the living strengths of the area, LEADER has enabled the agricultural cooperative movement to evolve quite logically towards what is actually its primary purpose, rural development," says Anthony Leddy, chairman of the board of directors of the LAG. "At the turning point of the 1980s, dairy cooperatives already were no longer interested in just the price of milk but in local development as a whole.
They were instrumental in setting up the 'Water Scheme Groups', groups of inhabitants and farmers that organise te installation of running water in the countryside. In a way, these groups have been an initial experience in local dynamics, the mobilisation of all citizens around a project of concrete development."
In this area where a number of sectors - tourism in particular - are penalised by a "sensitive" border, agriculture still ranks first in the economy: over 60% of the jobs depend on it directly or indirectly. But the land is poor and most farms are divided up and very small (on average 16 ha). Combined with the constraints from quotas in the milk, beef and sheepmeat sectors, these unfavourable conditions made an extensive diversification of farming a must.
In the 1960s, an initial wave of diversification first concerned two "classic" farm productions: a lot of farmers had turned to poultry (currently 55% of national production) and pigmeat (20%). But because of its size, its innovative nature in Ireland and the effects that it had on the entire economy, the production of mushrooms was a few years later the first "great leap forward" in terms of local development.
Tim Connolly is a pioneer: encouraged by Teagasc, he launched out in 1981 into the production of mushrooms grown in compost bags placed inside large polyethylene tunnels ensuring steady light, temperature and humidity. "I first installed two tunnels," he says. "After a year, we saw that it was profitable: production rapidly generated a cash flow because there are six weeks between sowing the mushrooms and harvesting them. We therefore installed three other mushroom tunnels in 1983." Tim thus produces each year 100 tonnes of mushrooms which earn him as much as his 65 dairy cows. "The mushrooms have enabled me to buy enough land so that my two sons can stay with me on the farm." Picking the mushrooms - by hand, which is the advantage of the Irish production in relation to British or Dutch competitors - also provides work at Connolly's for five permanent part-time employees (about 30 hours a week).
One of the keys to the success of the some 240 mushroom growers in the LEADER area (nearly half of Ireland's mushrooms producers) has to do with the organisation of distribution: Tim Connolly sells his production through a buying group - "Monaghan Mushrooms Ltd" - which manages to place on the shelves of British supermarkets the mushrooms harvested 24 hours before in Ireland. This system has enabled the enterprise to become in 16 years the leading producer of mushrooms in Europe. This packaging and distribution group which has organised about 200 producers of mushrooms in as many "satellite units" to which it supplies spores, compost and technical assistance made ECU 32.3 million in sales turnover in 1994 and created 300 jobs in its different packaging units.
Adge King insists on the importance of this sector before adding, however: "here, the support from LEADER for farmers concerns above all non-agri-food products because given the narrowness of the market, few farmers have launched out into farmhouse products: instead they are choosing a second activity, compatible with their farm in terms of time, space, buildings, etc. It is usually an activity very different from their first activity."
This second activity is often in the beginning a hobby, a passion that is turned into a job until it becomes a full-fledged enterprise which in some cases no longer has much in common with farming. Often innovation, invention, even genius converge in this process. With jobs at the end of the day.
John McKeown is 36. He "does" milk and beef part time because he does not have enough land. A mechanics fanatic, he launched out in 1989 into the building of steel farm sheds before developing a revolutionary product in 1995: the "trail lift" is a four-wheel drive tractor-drawn fork-lift, four times less expensive than a conventional fork-lift, "tailor-made" for farmers. "The product is ready, and we have patented it. The big challenge now is the commercialisation..." And it is apparent that in that area John feels a little helpless.
Jim O'Donnell has invented a heatpad to raise piglets. The device - an electrical resistor placed between two insulating plates - provides greater comfort to the animal and consumes ten times less energy than the usual infrared lamp. "The success in Ireland was instantaneous," explains Tim. "In mid-1996, we began anticipating the level of saturation on the national market. We have now launched out into the export market: the United Kingdom, France and Italy - a little -, Portugal - a lot - and for the past couple of months, Canada, where we have found a distributor. The problem is that in volume we are still not capable of meeting demand..." The O'Donnell enterprise, which has eight employees and produces 250 heatpads a week, therefore now has to envisage its expansion: "first we are going to expand our facilities here, in Cavan, before taking on perhaps the American adventure: the United States represents a market of 50 000 units a year..."
It is worthy to note in passing that the local farmers do not have a monopoly over innovation: a professor from Coothill (Cavan), Sťan Grogan, has invented a push "chalk holder" which prevents the user from getting dirty when writing on the blackboard. The principle is inspired by lipstick. Simple but it had to be thought of... LEADER has provided ECU 4 000 to promote the product that is beginning to be found in certain good stationer's shops in Ireland.
Making a profession out of one's passion
Recreational activities for a local or very specialised clientele are another niche that farmers are seeking to take advantage of.
In the Jones family, alongside the dairy cows, horses have been bred for generations. "Despite the arrival of the tractor, a lot of farmers in Ireland have kept one or two horses," explains Tom Jones, "but they don't look after them. Now for the past few years there has been a new craze for riding, be it pony trekking or competition. My brother and I saw a strong potential in this sector and decided to make our passion into a genuine enterprise for breeding and training horses."
In 1993, the International Fund for Ireland helped them build modern stables for mares and colts. Three years later, LEADER II contributed ECU 50 000 to install a ring. "It is going to be used to train and to learn to train horses, either for recreational purposes or for jumping. In collaboration with the North-Eastern Horse Breeders association (150 members), a 'horse business' with real value added is to be recreated: untrained, a three-year old mare is worth ECU 600. Ready to be mounted, she can be worth ECU 12 000 and more..."
Martin Gilliland has also turned his passion into a business, the ball-trap: he has only recently finished setting up on his farm four shooting ranges that can simulate some ten types of hunting (rabbit, woodcock, pheasant, etc.). The originality and success of what is becoming a real recreational enterprise lie in part in its design: the shooting ranges are laid out like a golf course that can be covered at one's own pace. LEADER has helped finance the equipment: shelters, paths, fences but also sophisticated automatic throwers. "In addition to tending to my 14 cows, I was a bricklayer. With the ball-trap I can now do all my activities on the farm," notes Martin.
Johnny and Lucy Madden own the Hilton Park estate which lies along the border. The six guest rooms that they fitted out in the 1980s not being enough to make this farm-mansion profitable, they applied for assistance from LEADER to restore the magnificent gardens which, for want of sufficient means, had been neglected. "The aim was to do more than welcome tourists and to make this history-rich place a cultural attraction for the entire region," explains Johnny. Flower beds and paths were restored, a small shelter was built along the lake situated on the property. Open to the public in 1996, the estate is beginning to attract specific groups, amateur painters for example: "my goal is to create an art centre open to everyone operating in a network with three other cultural poles of this part of the county. We're currently building a project with the Tyrone Guthrie Literary Centre nearby.
But I'd like to say that LEADER has done an enormous amount for this area, we're just now beginning to reap the benefits
Pity that LEADER can't do more because you can really tell that it was designed to actually help people with projects."
It is also passion that motivates Marcus McCabe. This young farmer from county Monaghan, an ardent environmentalist, has turned his farm over to permaculture: for the past three years, his farm has been producing aquatic plants (reed beds, bulrushes, etc.) that naturally clean waste water (lagooning) and a large variety of plants intended to restore the landscape and biodiversity. In addition to this horticultural production are lagooning-related training and consulting activities, landscape development, eco-building using only eco-materials, etc. The large biomass-heated wooden house that he built himself provides permanent accommodation for young people in occupational training and students who want to specialise in what could become an important agricultural activity tomorrow.
LEADER has participated in the promotion of the project, and Marcus gives as example: "the publication of a brochure, a catalogue, direct mailing aimed at landscape architects, local and regional authorities, the different potential clients in Ireland and elsewhere. The sum may not seem much - ECU 2 500 - but even so, the operation has put us on the map and opened the market: following this, contracts came pouring in and there is no shortage of work. Our problem now is to grow gradually..."
Member of several international environmental organisations, notably the Global Eco Village Network, Marcus McCabe is beginning to dream of "villages operating in an ecological and autonomous fashion which, through telecommunications, would take some of the pressure off cities and recreate a quality rural environment: lively, friendly, interdependent..." Ahead of his time? A Utopian? What is certain is that at its current stage the project has attracted the attention - and favour - of all the farmers of the area.
Surface area of the region : 318 km2
Population : 106 000 inhabitants
LEADER II funding : ECU 6 875 000
EU : ECU 3 165 937
Other public funds : ECU 1 055 313
Private : ECU 2 653 750
Cavan-Monaghan Rural Development Co-op Society Ltd
Agriculture College, Ballyhaise, IRL-Co. Cavan
Tel : +353 49 38477
Fax : +353 49 38189
source: LEADER Magazine nr.15 - Summer 1997