Ireland part V: farmers and the weather
It takes a steady and adequate supply of rain to keep Ireland as green as the pictures depict it, and a steady supply of rain is what they receive. Ireland soaks up 30 to 50 inches of rain per year, on average, and a “long drought” in Ireland is the record 37 days without rain in 1938 — a laughable length of time for those who can recollect entire summers with hardly a drop.
We encountered at least one rain shower every day but one, when it decided to downpour shortly after sundown instead. The rain showers were mostly brief and intermittent, and when they did appear, were rarely heavy downpours and better described as a healthy Irish mist. Our first day, however, gave us a good welcome-to-Ireland-soaking as we puddle-jumped our way through Dublin from attraction to attraction.
Temperatures in Ireland are mild compared to those we experience in Minnesota, but that alone doesn’t say much. Ireland benefits from the North Atlantic current that sweeps warm water from the Gulf of Mexico region to the higher latitudes. The highest and lowest temperatures recorded anywhere in Ireland are 91.9 and -2.4 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. The typical range is between 30 and 80 degrees. During our visit, daily highs were generally in the 60s.
Most locals, accustomed to the sporadic weather, are wisely equipped with umbrellas. Thinking ahead we made certain to pack rain jackets and an umbrella, too — one of those collapsible, light-weight umbrellas that are easy to travel with and completely worthless if the wind happens to be blowing more than 3.5 miles per hour. It should have come as no surprise that within minutes of opening it up one of the spindly arms caved from the force of the moderate breeze and bent out of shape, significantly limiting its effectiveness at shedding water.
Travel Tip: leave your wimpy umbrellas at home and buy a good one when you arrive. They are sold everywhere. We weren’t the only ones with this problem, however, as I saw three to four abandoned, half-broken, collapsible umbrellas throughout the day — all generously left for someone damp and desperate enough to make use of their remaining shell.
With the steady rains come productive pastures on which to graze cattle and sheep. Not a single patch of grass is wasted, it seemed, as the livestock, and especially the sheep, could be found everywhere, even abutting popular scenic attractions. The views from the hills and mountains showed valleys that were divided up into a patchwork of grazing pastures, separated by stone fences. Pastures ranged in size from five to 25 acres, depending upon the lay of the land. Noticeably absent was anything that we would classify a feedlot. The animals are rotated between pastures regularly enough to prevent the grass from being trampled to mud.
The Irish have a grass-based dairy industry where average herd size is 50 cows, most typically of a Holstein-Friesian mix. Average milk yields are lower than found locally, and farmers attempt to maintain a 12-month birthing cycle so calves are born in the spring months when the grass is becoming most productive. The Irish also raise beef cattle and nearly every restaurant we visited boasted “100 percent Irish beef” somewhere on their menu.
Not once did we see a stalk of corn, probably due to the cooler temperatures typical of an Irish summer and fewer tillable acres. Instead, wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, beets and forages are most abundant.
We seized an opportunity to visit a sheep farm in the mountains near Kilarney National Park. This particular sheep farm has been in their family for 150 years and is so rural it did not receive electricity service until 1980. For a small fee we were able to watch a sheep shearing demonstration and witness their five border collies rounding up a herd of sheep in the pasture. The wool from a sheep is sheared off once a year but is only worth about $1.33, about the same amount it costs to pay a person to shear the sheep, due to oversaturation in the wool market. Nevertheless, it must be sheared once a year for the average sheep’s 13-year life span or the coat will get too heavy.
Though Ireland is full of sheep, we rarely saw evidence of local consumption of the meat. We were told many Irish don’t care to buy the meat, which is still pricier than beef, pork or chicken. Therefore, most of it is exported, with France being the top destination.
The sheep herding demonstration was downright impressive. The farmer stood atop the hill as one-by-one he released the dogs with a vocal cue. He gave each of his five collies the command to veer either left or right around the pasture edges in search for stray animals. He would yell the dog’s name and then follow that with a command, as they crouched around boulders and stalked their “prey,” ready to pounce should any individual find the courage to attempt to cut from the herd. Within five minutes the small herd of 30 animals was gathered and pushed into the holding pen by the circling team of dogs.
This family benefitted by their location and ability to attract tourist dollars to help offset the challenges associated with the depressed farm economy, but most farmers in Ireland aren’t that lucky. Whether the farm would remain economically productive enough for the next generation to carry on the tradition remains an open question in their mind. The tale sounded all too familiar to those of us who grew up in the Midwest. From the rocky landscape to the potato famines to today’s market challenges, farming in Ireland has never been an easy task. Neither is it in the Upper Midwest. It seems no coincidence, therefore, that many of those who persist in U.S. agriculture today can trace their roots to hardy individuals (whether Irish or otherwise) that long ago learned how to survive through frugality, creativity, perseverance and true grit.
Slán go foil.
Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa