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Ken's Commentary: Entwined past, shared future

(Ken Root has just returned from an agricultural tour of Ireland. He has been leading groups on international trips for almost forty years but this was his first to the Emerald Isle.)

Ireland is as green as they say. The sky is often cloudy, and rain is an almost-daily event. Looking at the globe, Ireland is comparable to New Zealand in its latitude and climate. Both are lush, green and temperate and both have the ability to grow grass for most of the year. The future for these island nations may lie in their competitive advantage in turning succulent cellulose into meat and milk for the growing international market that lies between them.

It was a joy to travel across Ireland because the land is beautiful and the people are friendly. They welcome Americans and converse easily about all kinds of issues. We have a shared relationship going back to massive immigration during the potato famine of the mid-19th century. In America, the Irish were the Mexicans of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are 46 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry, while the island nation’s current population is less than 5 million.

The Irish are long-suffering in their relationship with Britain, and hold deep animosity for how they were treated. The past is has not passed when they tell you of millions who starved while grain was exported from Ireland to England, or when an Irish independence movement was snuffed out in 1916. They like Americans, as we were the first country to recognize them as a republic and Irish-Americans have a love for their home country and its customs. When you get right down to it, we all want to be Irish, at least on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ireland is positioning its agriculture for a run at the international dairy market in 2015. We surmised this by touring a registered Holstein-Friesian farm near Dublin and a dairy product research center. Both were anticipating the European Union to end quotas for dairy production in the next two years and allow countries to determine the agricultural commodities they will produce based on more of a free market.

Irish dairy farmers have shown that they can be competitive in the world market due to low-cost forage. Translating grass to dairy products beats grain-fed cows in cost of milk produced. That advantage is evidenced with butter from Ireland, common in many countries around the world today. Ireland also is developing a reputation as a high-quality provider of infant formula. A researcher cited that Ireland has only 1% of the world’s milk production, but produces 15% of the world’s infant formula. They were quick to report that New Zealand had an e coli outbreak in milk shipped to China. Middle class Chinese parents, rearing a single child, are willing to pay exorbitant prices for the highest quality food possible and Ireland would love to have a piece of that growing market.

The distance from markets doesn’t seem to be an impediment for Irish dairy farmers. Although fluid milk is freely transported to EU countries, the dairy researchers are working on “components” for cheese and other dairy products that can be separated and shipped thousands of miles. We were given the example that India needs dairy components to fill a need for traditional foods, and Ireland is figuring out ways to produce them. Ireland also has peak milk production months due to grazing cows on pasture. They are developing more efficient equipment to make milk powder that can be stored and sold during the three months when production is low.

To Americans, Irish agriculture looks inefficient. Pastures are only a few acres in size and surrounded by rock walls, hedge rows or fences. The roads are narrow (it was best not to look at how close our bus came to the cliffs and cars) so transportation is a challenge for trucks that pick up milk from the many small farms. But consolidating Irish agriculture is going to be a slow process. Our guide said that only 1/10 of a single percent of Irish farmland sells in any given year. The price is now over ten thousand Euros ($13,800) per acre, but much lower than the pre-recession period.

Ireland has a lot of determined farm operators. Their scale is small but their energy is high. Whoever picked the rocks out of the fields and built fences is proof that they have great ambition. The land is good in some regions but shallow and rocky over much of the island. The general workforce seems to be as durable as their agricultural sector. Irish people say they were a third world country until they entered into the European Union in 1973. At that point they began to open their borders to other EU countries and today they talk of driving a truck to Spain like we talk of making a freight run to Texas. The EU developed a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that taxed the people to keep farmers on the land; it has generally been successful but very expensive. Europe’s economic woes have caused the EU to reevaluate that policy, hence the likely end to quotas and reduction of subsidies in 2015.

Ireland is a country to watch as they try to put their past behind them and move toward a brighter future based on natural resources and work. It might help if they use some of their luck as well.