Friday, June 2, 2023


AS FOOD costs are on the rise, one south Down family is encouraging everyone to consider taking control of their own food supply, in order to reduce costs and improve their quality of life. The Harron family run a smallholding at Annacloy Cottage Farm, just outside Downpatrick. At their farm, they grow their own crops and raise pigs and chickens. They think their approach could be replicated by others. Amy Harron told the Mourne Observer: “We are a family working towards growing our own food in as low an impact way on the environment as we can. “Our main focus is feeding ourselves as a family, but that extends out to friends and a network of people. “Self-sufficiency sounds very selfish. It is our aim, but we have a community around us who we share various things with, skills, resources and tools. “I don’t like the term self-sufficiency because it is really about community.” The community element for the Harrons means growing food and rearing animals and sharing the surplus with their friends, who from time to time help them out with work on their smallholding. Amy told the Mourne Observer she believes the cost of food is going to increase and people are going to start rethinking where they get their food from. “It’s about more people not relying on the big supermarkets. ‘You have the power to produce food for your family’ A family with a smallholding outside Downpatrick can see how we can all escape from rising food costs “People have handed their control of their own food over to corporations. “People don’t feel that they have to look after their own food. I know not everyone can. “But it doesn’t need to be big.” There are a number of reasons why food costs will go up in the supermarkets. Fuel prices are increasing because of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Following the outbreak of the war Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots pointed out that both Russia and Ukraine play a “crucial role” in global agri-food markets. “People aren’t going to be able to predict their shopping bills before too long,” Amy said. “They are not going to know. The fact that fuel prices have gone up will put the price of everything up, and it will put up the price of things that we need, and that is food.” Amy believes there are few options available to those of us who want to reduce the cost of food in the future. “Everything is going to get more expensive. “For the people to weather the financial situation we are in they have to stop relying on those systems. “You will have people who will have veg patches in the back garden who will think that they have to do that. “It is really old-fashioned. It is nothing new. But it is becoming more relevant because people are starting to think about what they are going to do if they can’t get certain foods or if prices are going up. “It is nice to have the security that we know that we have got our chickens in the field, and our pigs in the field. We have got our veg in the ground.” Amy accepts that people may feel intimidated by the thought of growing their own food, or they may feel that they do not have the resources. But, she adds, it is not so out of reach as it may first seem. “You don’t have to have a farm, even if you have a small garden you could do something. “And if you want to do more, then there could be allotments. “And if there were a demand for allotments and if the council were inundated then it would be something that they would look at.” But just having your own garden and growing a few veg is one step. Amy says key to the future of our food security is people working together. “I don’t think the answer is to have lots of massive farms. I think the answer is to have lots of smaller farms like this.” The Annacloy Cottage Farm is a new project and Amy makes it clear that they are certainly no experts. She and her husband Harry lived in Hungary before moving to Northern Ireland in 2011. Harry is from Carrick and Amy is from England. They were living in the area before the opportunity to buy the land on the Annacloy Cottage Farm came up in 2019. They took the opportunity and then began setting up their farm. They have a holiday let, and they have four-and-a-half acres where they keep their pigs, sheep, chickens and ducks and they grow their own vegetables. They are registered as a hobby farm with DAERA. They have had a commercial element in the past when they sold pork, chicken and eggs to the public but they don’t regard themselves as a commercial enterprise at the moment. They have set that aside so they can focus on farming for themselves and their small community of friends and helpers as well as relying on the holiday let on the farm. Everything they do is about community. For example, they have their pig club. “The community aspect is important to us. “We have three pigs and the third pig we are doing a pig club with a few families who don’t have space for pigs. But they want to know that they can have some high welfare, healthily fed, pigs at the end of the line. They can step in and help us if we are away, or if we need help. “This is the way people used to do it.” They also link up with groups like Ark Community Gardens, to exchange food for labour. “Last year we grew a lot of potatoes, and we were helped by Ark Community Gardens in Newcastle and in exchange we provided everyone with lunch. “We did pulled-pork baps for everyone from our pigs. Then we provided all of Ark’s veg boxes for their year with our potatoes in exchange for all the manpower. We are just two people with two small kids. “That’s the kind of thing that we are doing which is about community and the way that people used to do it. “We were eating pork sandwiches on the top of the tractor; people had brought their kids and we got the job done. They are the things that we are interested in doing with local people rather than being a big commercial thing.” Amy also said they have found that incredible connections have opened up because of their farm. “The community aspect has been really lovely. As soon as we owned the land and started doing our smallholding we made connections with the community that we have never met before, all of a sudden they were helping us with tractors, or helping us bring in bales of straw. “People we had no connection to really liked it. These are mainstream farmers and they have really taken to it. They have turned up with gifts, like a big pig feeder that they weren’t using. It has connected with our community in a way that we have never connected before.” There are a number of reasons why the Harron family seek to grow their own food. Harry had health issues, and a brain tumour meant he had to stop working. He now focuses his energy on working the farm. Eating properly was important for health reasons. Amy said: “We have had great benefits from having great food. We have health issues in the family which meant we had to eat that way. We know the benefits of good nutrition. It makes a difference how the animal has been reared and what they have lived on. “The benefits of this type of farming are that you know where your food is coming from. There are basically zero food miles. “Because we are eating what we produce we seriously care what we feed our animals. I don’t mean that bigger farmers don’t care, of course they do. But we are really connected to it. “There are the mental health benefits of being connected to the land. You waste less when you have grown it yourself. You make sure you use every last morsel.” Amy pointed out that an important element of growing food is also knowing how to store food. “If you were just growing it and not doing anything else then you would end up with a glut of veg in the bulk seasons. You would give it away and you would have loads of friends. Then you would have months when you don’t have the stuff. “We do big scale fermenting. When we finish our cabbage crop, I can make that into sauerkraut. We are still eating sauerkraut from last summer. “So it is learning the way of storing things without using the freezer. You want things in a usable form. “I also do an old-fashioned American process of canning. It is the process of high heating something so it is shelf-stable in the jar. “This was something that was popular in Hungary.” Amy says there are so many reasons why it has been positive to live the way they live. The food they get is of the best quality and it is good for their health. Working the land and growing the food is beneficial for their mental health. It also fosters a greater connection with their local community. It is cheaper in the long run, although it is harder work. But crucially they are not reliant on the food supply chains that are apparently coming under pressure. “What we have found is that our passion has become really useful. “Now we are facing fuel increases, grain increases and every single food product we see on our shelves going up in price because the cost to produce it is going to increase.” And she urges everyone to consider how they can extricate themselves from the modern food chain. “People have become so divorced from their food source, they are just used to seeing something on the shelf. “Take control of your food supply. Don’t give it all to the government or to a supermarket. “You have the power to produce food for your family. That is really empowering. “People might want to be at the whim of fuel costs and that sort of thing, but at some point supply will become an issue. “If you are relying on shorter supply chains, with smaller operations, with smaller pools of people feeding into that, then you are going to be more secure in terms of your food source. “That is something that none of us can afford not to be. We all need to eat, and if you are someone who cares about what you eat then it is going to be harder to be satisfied with what is available or what you can afford.” But, Amy added, the most important element of their approach isn’t about helping themselves, it is about helping everyone. “Someone said to me at the start that it is not about self-sufficiency. Yes, you are self-sufficient, you are not reliant on massive external factors, you are in a community, and it is giving and taking.”

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