AGRICULTURE: The UN COP21 Climate Treaty signed in Paris, 2015, heralds the end of intensive, cattle-dependent, mono-agriculture in Ireland. Consolidating the majority of our land in the hands of a few super-farms is of little benefit to communities or the environment, but only to those with the resources to expand.
The Kerrygold of Frozen Organic Vegetables: Instead, we must diversify, making Longford-Westmeath a centre of pioneering horticulture: growing vegetables, fruit, flowers and nuts; and profiting from some of the €850m spent annually on imported vegetables and fruit. We can gain world renown as a premium brand of organic frozen vegetables grown in the heart of Ireland – the Kerrygold of vegetables.
Walnuts and Asian food: Likewise, we can supply some of the 50 million apples, pears and plums bought here each year; not to mention the walnuts, hazelnuts, Spanish chestnuts and Omega-rich super-foods (aronia, Saskatoon berries, sea buckthorn) that can now all thrive here, thanks to new locally-suited varieties. Currently, all Asian and exotic vegetables sought by our immigrant community are imported: we can serve this market.
Farming as flood protection: Diversification from cattle and sheep will not only increase profits, employment and resilience to wavering commodity prices, but most of all it will avoid the ecological damage of mono-agriculture which demands ever more inputs for smaller yields. We will reinvigorate our flood-prone fields into biodiverse, multi-crop patchworks of trees, orchards, vegetables and polytunnels, with pigs and rare-breed cattle grazing free range in our woodlands and wetlands. All of which helps counteract flooding.
Fair prices: To ensure adequate prices, our harvest would first be sold in farmers’ markets and artisan shops, while a media campaign and subsidies encouraged people to buy local produce. In time the quality and integrity of the Midlands brand would earn it a premium on the international market, just as so many Irish products have done before.
Artistan food: This supply of ecologically-produced farm produce will attract artisan food producers, chefs, fermenters, smokers and distillers who will create a thriving secondary market in artisan food products. Some of which will go global, just as the products of Cully & Sully, Glenisk and Nature’s Best have done. Irish artisan products (cheeses, sauces, crackers, etc) are encountering eager international buyers keen to taste the fruits of our ‘green’, healthy land. Bord Bia support the big conglomerates, we need a Bord Bia Beag to aid individuals and communities.
A sustainable living: These forms of farming are labour intensive and may not earn millions, but ensure you of a sustainable living and guarantee the viability of the community. Such work can, and probably should, be supplemented with interior work that is less physically demanding. The rapidly spreading GIY movement of home growers attest to a desire among households to secure a healthy, traceable food supply (and perhaps a supplementary income). Polytunnels, irrigation/drainage and increased awareness of composting have made it simpler and more efficient than ever. All that is needed is increased training and support. New varieties of fruit and nuts trees reared for this climate provide richer harvests, without added fertilisers.
Training: The pioneers of small-scale farming and artisan food production need to be put in touch with those willing to learn the skills for themselves: ultimately beef-orientated agriculture colleges will be refocused towards sustainable horticulture and permaculture course, such as those at KInsale College and the Organic Centre, Leitrim.
Land-purchase is not necessarily a requirement: so much ground remains under-utilised in the form of idle fields and overgrown gardens, all that is needed is a framework by which land owners and cultivators can agree to share resources and harvests.
FARMS AS SOCIAL NETWORKS: The potential of communty-owned or supported farms to deliver educational, social and health benefits is well represented by Moyhill Community Farm in Co Clare (run by Green Party candidate & pro surfer, Fergal Smith.) Rather than having private individuals from outside our communities profit from childcare and eldercare, we as communities can offer these services locally. Siting them on community farms provides an opportunity for the entire neighbourhood to unite around a natural haven that would provide sustenance and support to all. Men's Sheds and mental & physical health support programmes can also be housed on the farm. The funding would come from central government, our own local investment through a public banking scheme (modelled on the Sparkasse in Germany) and EU Rural Development funding.
HOUSING: Government attempts at retrofitting homes with insulation, damp-proofing and double-glazing have not succeeded. New schemes need to be more intensive, with grants that cover at least 75% of the costs involved – a once-off Government expense that will reap dividends for decades. Home heating boilers than then be replaced by carbon-neutral heat pumps.
European co-housing initiatives need to be introduced, where a number of families cohabitate in a well-made building, sharing a super-efficient heating system, professional laundry, office-space, childcare and recreational features, but with their own private space. This has social, practical, economic and environmental benefits, and leads to more creative, cohesive and collaborative communities.
Addressing housing shortages by building estates or lessening restrictions on one-off rural housing is no longer sustainable nor socially constructive.
ENERGY: Wind: The threat of foreign-owned, industrial-scale, wind turbines brought fear to our counties, yet the fact that we are regarded as ideally suited to wind-generation can be exploited by communities to create locally-owned, small-scale turbines, as has been done in Templederry, Co Tipperary, in a similar model to cooperative water schemes. At the very least all future wind turbine sites must be partically community owned as is the norm in Denmark and Germany, where locals living within 4.5km of the turbines have the opportunity to purchase a minimum of 20% of the shares in the wind farm, those profitiing directly with each turn of the turbine.
Biogas: Westmeath was selected by the EU BioRegions project as a prime location for the introduction of anaerobic digesters and biomass heat and power plants. The potential exists for local cooperatives to adopt the Austrian/Swiss model of local anaerobic digesters producing heating from biogas extracted from farm and commercial waste. Biogas can be further refined for use in vehicles as is done in Scandinavia.
Solar: Solar photovoltaics are now so cheap that with a minimal government-set feed-in tariff, of around 14c per kw they could return the installation costs for householder within 6 years. The ESB phased out their feed-in tariff as the government wasn't forcing other energy operators to offer the same scheme. Legislation could make solar a viable and attractive proposition overnight, providing yet more local employment.
Forestry: No matter how cheap oil gets it can’t match the savings from heating your home with native Irish timber. Forestry in Ireland has doubled since 1981 to 800,000 hectares and there are vast supplies of sustainable, seasoned, carbon-neutral firewood in the Midlands as farm-foresters thin their plantations. Heating with timber diverts money from shady oil sheiks and funnels it to your local community. It improves the forest’s health and the ecological diversity of your locality. One-off grants to convert planet-polluting oil-powered boilers to efficient wood stoves or solid fuel boilers will pay for themselves, with savings through decreased purchases of petroleum, and lessen reliance on corrupt oil regimes.
Watermills: Westmeath and Longford abound in streams, rivers, gullies and lakes all of which can generate energy through small, super-efficient, hydro turbines. While the technology has improved it is not new; Ireland has, after all, the largest number of pre-10th century water-mill sites in the world. www.microhydro.ie will provide a free map survey and estimate of hydro-energy potential for any location.
ARTS: artists are always the first to sniff out the potential for creativity and vibrant opportunity in overlooked areas, as witnessed in Berlin, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Temple Bar and Copenhagen. The last decade has seen a move of artists to the Midlands, taking advantage of the cheap accommodation, large spaces and easy transport links.
The Good Hatchery in Offaly is now considered the most vibrant and coveted artists residency in Ireland; Hilltown New Music Festival in Westmeath is the most innovative festival of experimental music; Athlone’s Poetry in the Park initiative won Britain’s Epic Award for Cultural Innovation and the productions that Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre created in Longford tour the most illustrious international venues. The former dairy farm at Shawbrook Dance School in Legan is internationally recognised for spearheading contemporary dance in Ireland over for 30 years.
The truth is that the Midlands are undergoing a cultural renaissance. As always, the creative pioneers will be followed by other early-adapters and entrepreneurs. This new generation of trail-blazers are only too aware of the latent potency that lies beneath our flat black bogs, wide lakes and dense forests.
Already, many of them choose Body & Soul in Westmeath and Electric Picnic in Laois as their annual gathering point. A perfect example is YouTube media and games commentator, Jacksepticeye, (aka Seán William McLoughlin) from Athlone who has over 8 million subscribers and over 3 billion views of his Westmeath-made video. He is currently the 86th most subscribed channel on YouTube.
TOURISM, the Midlands are gradually becoming an alluring tourism destination for those keen to engage with Real Ireland. Waterways Ireland’s tourism infrastructural developments along the Shannon River, the Royal Canal and our numerous lakes, along with the construction of the Mullingar to Athlone cycleway on a disused railway line are diverting tourists to our area. We can either allow impersonal, corporate hotel chains to capitalise on this, or else come together as community to create small-scale personalised services offering outdoor activities, affordable boutique accommodation, the finest locally-sourced food and opportunities to engage with communities in a genuine way. We have such rich traditions, stories and customs in this region that would be an irresistible allure to discerning tourists who would be happy to pay a premium for locally-sourced, artisan food products, services and community engagement. The pristine unsullied landscape and infrastructure already exists, all we need do is allow cycle and walking tracks across our land, and permit camping and access routes to rivers, lakes and the Canal.
FUNDING: With the European Central Bank currently eager to flood the EU with quantatitive easing, there is no shortage of funding for sustainable, environmental projects that will help boost business and the viability of rural areas. All we need to do is draw up sensible, feasible projects that we ourselves are willing to invest in and we can draw down substantial funding. (With deposit interest rates now less than 1%, it makes sense to invest in the future of our locality than the vagaries of disfunctional banking system.)
Already the EU had distributed €3.4 billion through its Life Programme, and we in Ireland have hardly ever applied for this fund. There is also the EU Rural Development Programme which is specifically aimed at promoting social inclusion, poverty reduction and economic development in rural areas.