The most cheering news of the year, surely, is about Irish farming and agriculture. There is an enthusiastic return to agricultural studies, along with a rise in farm land prices and a boom in Irish food exports. Irish food and drink exports increased by €1 billion last to reach the highest volume ever. Over the last two years Irish edible produce has increased by an extraordinary 25 per cent. And agricultural land prices have just grown by 15 per cent.
Farming is fashionable. Irish food is in great demand and is enjoying a rising reputation, not only within the traditional markets of Britain and Continental Europe, but across Asia too.
It is lovely to hear of younger Irish farmers – those in their thirties and forties – who resisted the siren call, during the Celtic Tiger years, to go into the property business, or to sell the land for development, but who hung on, sometimes for reasons of family sentiment – “my father put a lot of work into this farm and I wouldn’t have felt right about letting it go” – and are now seeing a promising return in agriculture.
Growing up as a Dubliner, it took me a while to appreciate what “the land” really meant in the traditions of Irish life. We didn’t have the same connectedness to the land as rural people, and stuff about “the land war” and “land agitation” were often rather melancholy phases in a history book. Yes, there was some kind of transmitted family memory of what “the land” signified, but it was only later, through reading, that I began to get a real insight into living on the land.
I was hugely taken with John Healy’s autobiographical Nineteen Acres, published in the 1980s. It really brought home to me what it must have been like to try and wrest an agricultural living from a Mayo smallholding. Through Healy’s lived experience, I came to understand why the Irish peasant was so very prudent about embarking on marriage and begetting issue: those nineteen acres had to support a “fragile dynasty”, and God forbid they should fall into the hands of the feckless, the improvident or those touched by the luckless genes of alcoholism or mental instability.
Making a living from agricultural holdings was so tough. Small wonder there were so many lonely bachelors in the Irish countryside who could not persuade women to share their lot. My own mother turned down a proposal from a well-to-do farmer in East Galway (where, it was explained to this jackeen, that the land was decidedly good) saying: “Twould be all skivvying and carrying pails of water.”
I also gained a revealing insight into the Irish obsession with land from John B. Keane’s monumental drama The Field. Would a man kill for an acre of land? Probably. Would the forces of moral reasoning in his community – a courageous woman, a well-meaning priest – restrain him? The lust for arable land could be greater.
But then there was a more idyllic connection to agriculture through the stories of John McGahern. Yes, the themes of the tyrannical old patriarch dominating all around him were ever present, but there were also lush descriptions of the love of the land, and magical passages about coming back to the home place to gather the harvest in the later summer months.
It must be so satisfying to work the land in this way, to do it in co-operation with others, and to see the fruits of the harvest saved. For a townie, another eye-opener.
Although it was known to be a hard life (and it is still a life prone to serious accidents), farming had enjoyed times of popularity before. There was a great fashion for studying agriculture after the enlightened Wyndham Land Acts of 1898, when tenant-holders could at last become proprietors of their own land.
But the vagaries of food prices and international markets, the fortunes of war, and sometimes the imprudent policies of politicians made agricultural life uncertain throughout the mid 20th century – until about 1960, when the opening up of the European Common Market, as it was then known, promised a better future.
And maybe now that future has properly arrived at last, aided by other social changes. The many scares about food impurities and pollutions – from “Mad Cow Disease” to salmonella – have made consumers aware of how important quality food really is.
The foodie fads and obsessions have brought more focus onto the producers of food. The rise of the “celebrity chef” has helped to make food exciting, sexy, glamorous.
Then, the food chain is becoming more personalised. The better supermarkets are sourcing their produce to actual farmers in particular places, linking the consumer with the producer. Animal welfare has helped, too. We don’t want eggs produced by battered old battery hens: we want them free and organic.
There is something down-to-earth – literally and metaphorically – about the welcome agricultural boom. Working that soil must “ground” a person with a sense of continuity, patience, observation of nature and season and science too.
And on the most practical level, farming is so basic and compelling. Human beings can, if necessary, do without many of the acquisitions and gadgets that are part of our lives: but nobody can do without food. The bread of life is the first requisite to sustain human existence.
With globalised information about famines and hunger, we are today, more than ever, appreciative of the men and women whose husbandry of the land make that sustenance possible.
Not only has farming been revived: but it is now achieving a professional status that it has seldom before reached. And rightly so. ENDS. February 2012. I.I. Mag