Written by OSU student Mariah Morris
Driving through Ireland’s countryside, Hawthorn and Ash trees can be seen standing alone in the center of any farm field. Locals call them fairy trees and believe them to be a gateway between mortals and the fairies of Irish folklores. It’s understood in Ireland that if you damage or cut one down, you’ll be faced with a life of bad luck, so farmers work around these trees and avoid planting near them.
Just as they’re careful with their fairy trees, Irish farmers take great care of their land and animals. Like American farmers, they use sustainable farming practices and innovative conservation efforts. On my recent study abroad, I got to explore these strategies while experiencing Ireland’s rich history and culture.
The country is small compared to the United States. In terms of size and population, it compares to West Virginia, but farmers there raise many of same agricultural products as those in the U.S. such as beef and dairy cattle, barley, potatoes and wheat. To compare and contrast how they’re raised oceans apart, I visited Irish sheep, beef and hog farms.
Ireland recently started a new sustainability program called Smart Farming, which is designed to enhance farm profitability by providing guidelines for improvement in eight key areas: soil fertility, energy, water, feed, inputs, machinery, time management and grassland. Grassland is a very important resource for Irish farmers because the mild climate allows them to keep animals on pasture for the majority of the year. In many parts of the U.S., snow and harsh winters don’t make that possible.
In terms of energy, for example, Smart Farming helps farmers identify where energy is used most on their farms. Knowing this, they can increase their efficiency by implementing actions to improve usage. Common energy-saving solutions include adequately insulating farm buildings, installing efficient lighting and improving ventilation.
I experienced this firsthand when I visited an Irish beef farm that had just built new barns equipped with exceptional ventilation. The barns have slits between the wood siding panels and in the ceiling to allow for maximum airflow. This allows the farmer to increase the herd’s size because they can properly care for more animals.
Like the Irish, Ohio farmers are always seeking innovative ways to improve their sustainability and animal care. Ohio’s dairy farmers typically keep their cows comfortable in large barns with circulation fans and curtained sides. The curtains can be drawn up in the summer for optimal ventilation and drawn down in the winter to retain heat and keep cows cozy.
In Ireland, grass provides 70-90% of the food for cattle and sheep. While grassland may not be as large of a focus in Ohio, grains like soybeans are grown over millions of acres in the Buckeye state and are often used for livestock feed. With the help of technology and improved practices, American soybean farmers have decreased their energy use by 35%, their greenhouse gas emissions by 44% and their water use by 33% in the last 30 years. All while growing 46% more soybeans.
While in Ireland, I also had the chance to visit Fota Wildlife Park and the Dublin Zoo. Both are involved in breeding programs that monitor the demographics and genetics of animal populations in more than 300 participating zoos and reintroduce zoo-bred animals into the wild.
The Irish are committed to conserving both their land and their history. Like the fairy trees, Ireland’s vibrant culture and time-tested traditions can be seen everywhere, from old cathedrals and castles to historic pubs. Storytelling and folklores keep Irish history alive and well.
My experience abroad helped to grow my appreciation for other cultures and think critically about agricultural practices and conservation efforts in the U.S.