Green shoots: Plenty of opportunities exist for farmers to diversify

Teagasc has produced a comprehensive body of information to help identify realistic options generating additional household income, writes Ray Ryan
Green shoots: Plenty of opportunities exist for farmers to diversify

February 1 is the feast of St Brigid — a patron of Ireland, along with Patrick and Colmcille  — and an iconic figure in the country’s Christianity, folklore, and farming life.

Lá Fhéile Bríde is also seen as the start of the new year on the land as days become longer and the first signs of growth are evident.

She organised religious communities countrywide, was a champion of the poor and is also known as the patron saint of agriculture.

There have been recent calls by Minister of State Martin Heydon and others to have the Government declare her feast day a national public holiday.

There are many stories of how Brigid, who was born about the year 450 and died around 525, milked cows, churned milk, made up firkins of butter, looked after sheep and helped with the harvest.

Pupils from Lisacul NS giving each other a helping hand to make St Brigid's Crosses last year.
Pupils from Lisacul NS giving each other a helping hand to make St Brigid's Crosses last year.

A daughter of a pagan chieftain father and a Christian mother, she is the patron of Kildare where she established a famous monastery and was known for her generosity and healing powers.

She is associated with many traditions and customs including the practice of people making crosses from rushes to celebrate her life and gain her protection for homes, animals, and crops.

Many holy wells across the country are dedicated to her. Churches and schools are named after her and her feast day is still celebrated.

St Brigid’s Day is seen by farmers as an annual start date for preparing the land for the year ahead, a day of new beginnings and renewed hope.

However, the timing of a recent publication of farm diversification options by Teagasc, close to Lá Fhéile Bríde, was probably coincidental but timely.

It provides a link between the seasonal start to work on farms with the modern demands of planning new enterprises in a changing global climate.

Farm diversification is the term usually used when considering a non-agricultural or novel enterprise. Many farmers and rural dwellers are interested and there are countless possibilities.

Teagasc has produced a comprehensive body of information to help identify a realistic option that suits those farmers for generating additional household income.

Factsheets

It involves a suite of 79 website factsheets along with videos on a range of ideas and possible options for individuals to explore.

Barry Caslin, energy and rural development specialist with Teagasc, said diversification may not be practicable for every farmer.

However, well planned and seasoned projects can create new sources of income and enhance the range of facilities available in rural areas.

“Our farm diversification factsheets cover a wide range of topics including organics, food, equine, horticulture, poultry, renewable energy, goats, forestry and tourism," said Mr Caslin.

They are an excellent starting point for innovative rural dwellers to begin to find out more information on possible business options that might suit them.

Fintan Phelan, head of the Teagasc Farm Management and Rural Development Department, said niche opportunities exist for farmers to examine. 

They include farming, beekeeping, and alternative energy sources.

The image of the goat has been transformed in recent years. 

Consumer knowledge of production values has increased and fuelled a demand for healthy, quality products, such as goats’ milk and cheese.

Milk from goats has long been associated with certain health benefits, particularly in the case of asthma and eczema. 

Due to its chemical and physical properties, it is also much more readily digestible by the human body.

 Goats' milk has become more popular in recent years. Picture: Dan Linehan
Goats' milk has become more popular in recent years. Picture: Dan Linehan

Goats’ cheese, rarely found on menus 20 years ago, has become a firm favourite with the Irish palate and is now commonplace in restaurants. Yoghurts, ice cream and even cosmetics can also be made from goats’ milk.

Because goats can be carried at a relatively high stocking rate on small acreages, Teagasc says they can be profitable with a good system and steady outlet.

The fact sheet relating to bees explains that Ireland has a long history of producing quality honey. It was a major exporter of comb honey up to the mid-20th century. 

Bees are also important for pollinating orchards and berry fruit.

Beekeepers can branch out into areas other than honey.
Beekeepers can branch out into areas other than honey.

While honey is the primary output of bee keeping, there is also a commercial market for producing colonies and mated queen bees. 

People selling honey must be registered, however, by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

“Most honey is sold directly to local retailers. Artisan food retailers and farmers’ markets can attract higher prices for premium quality and well-presented produce. 

"Heather and comb honey are specialist products that command the highest price premium.

A beekeeper could also develop a range of allied products such as candles and cosmetics.

"Online retailing and developing a brand could be a rewarding marketing method.

“Sale of part or all bulk honey wholesale is an option, which eliminates bottling, marketing, and distribution,” Teagasc says.

Traditional markets for straw include animal bedding and feed but it has been used in other European Union countries for decades as a combustion fuel for both heat and electricity production.

Given that straw is not a prime source that will solve the world’s energy problems, Teagasc notes that it has potential as a sustainable, renewable, alternative fuel source.

“In addition, increasing straw utilisation will have knock-on benefits to the economy, rural employment and farm income levels.

“Ireland’s area under cereals amounts to almost 270,000 hectares and yields approximately one million tonnes of straw.

The Irish Government and the EU have made clear their wish to promote the use of increasing amounts of biomass for the production of energy.

"The value of straw, like any resource, depends on demand and availability,” it said.

Meanwhile, Teagasc is running a weekly webinar every Tuesday at 11am called Farm Business Options. It provides detailed case studies from diversification champions around Ireland.

The next webinar hosted by Padraig Fitzgerald will focus on value added food production in the Kerry/Limerick region, where the tradition of new beginnings associated with Lá Fhéile Bríde has been handed down through the generations.

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