I have always wanted to visit Ireland but had never found a reason to go. So, I was excited when Dr. Mary Ryan, from the Agriculture and Food Authority in Ireland, invited me to give a talk at the European Association of Agricultural Economists’ meeting in Galway in western Ireland. I had a fascinating week that included an introduction to Galway and western Ireland, the conference and two days in Dublin.
I expected Galway to be fun, but the place exceeded my expectations. I stayed in the Jury Hotel, which is at the start of Quay Street, the main pedestrian street of Galway. The street is a tourist’s dream; neat shops of Irish wool goods, elegant restaurants of all cuisines except Mexican (maybe we should open a Gordo’s). I was surprised by the quality of the food. Great mixtures of seafood and local meats and greens, and of course an extensive selection of drinks served in exotic bars.
But for me the main charm is the music, much of it played in the street. It’s a New Orleans-like atmosphere, with wonderful bands and an interesting combination of instruments (one group had a saxophone, clarinet, banjo, drums and accordion) creating wonderful sounds. From “Irish Klezmer” to rock. Of course, there are many bluegrass-type acts, reminding me that it all started here. The bars compete with their decor, offerings and shows. Róisín Dubh gets the best performers and has been the go-to music venue in Galway for years. It has multiple gigs, from classy Celtic Music to noisy rock and stand up – and of course good beers and friendly crowds.
It seems that tourism is the main industry of western Ireland. The vistas are beautiful with green fields and huge rocks. But the land is not very fertile, it is “rock farming.” Hardly any crops are grown, and while the green fields are beautiful, apparently the yield is not very high. Livestock graze on the patches of grass between the rock and the majority of products are sheep, beef and milk.
Western Ireland used to export a lot of immigrants to America and other countries, but it’s taken a turn and now the economy is more diverse with tourism, the knowledge sector around the university and some agriculture. Ireland as a whole seems to do well economically. It recovered from the financial debacle of 2009-2012, and now you can see new buildings, an excellent train service, and roads that are in good shape.
The conference aimed to investigate how policies and extension activities can make agriculture more sustainable, in terms of environment, economics and the community. An interesting discussion on the evolution of agricultural policies in Europe suggested that for most of the second half of the 20th century, the main emphasis was on protecting farm prices. But this strategy backfired because it has led to increased supply, which required even more price support. Towards the turn of the millennium, the emphasis shifted to “decoupled” policies that aimed to protect farmers’ income without affecting supply. That led to revised policies that reduced volatility of incomes and supported activities that enhanced environmental quality. Now, EU policies tend to emphasize decentralization, giving individual members more flexibility to develop policies that address their specific situations — aiming to protect farmers’ income, environmental quality, and rural well-being in the different regions.
Professor David Pannel from the University of Western Australia spoke about the challenge of designing environmental policies — in particular, payment for ecological services (PES). Such programs pay farmers to adopt practices that improve environmental quality. They may include payment to stop the use of chemicals, adopting tillage practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, etc. There have been studies that found that tens of millions of dollars were spent on PES program without significant impact, because of the design. The challenge is to reduce environmental behavior that wouldn’t happen otherwise. It is crucial to quantify the outcomes at the micro level and encourage the payment for activities that maximize environmental benefit obtained with a given amount of money. The selection of farmers will be done using a reverse auction. Namely, farmers will ask for a payment for activities that improve environmental quality and the agency will choose the activities with the highest ratios of environmental benefit per dollar.
In my talk, I spoke about the changing role of extension in pursuing sustainable development. Agricultural modernization resulted mostly from the adoption of new technologies and practices by farmers. In the past, many of the innovations were outcomes of public research and the extension system that includes specialists on universities and farm advisers in the field. They have adapted the technologies to farmers needs and have provided the knowledge that has led to the adoption of innovations.
Over time the role of the private sector increased, both in developing new technologies and introducing them to farmers through private dealerships. The agri-food system is constantly evolving. As farmers become more educated, they rely on specialized consultants to improve management of water and pests, and large buyers of agricultural output have private extension services guiding farmers and overseeing farmers production activities. In this new reality, the public extension agent is less important as a source of information to the individual growers. But public extension services have emphasized training the trainers.
Public extension agents are becoming wholesalers of knowledge, training the private consultants, and professionals who are the retailers of knowledge and work with farmers. We found that for a sample of US farmers, it is estimated that 40 percent of their information is derived from public sector and the rest from private sector. But if we take into account that the private knowledge suppliers rely on public sources as well, the share of public knowledge is 70 percent.
Professor Brendan Dunford presented a fascinating case study of the Burren for Conservation Program, which he directs, (BFCP), which is introducing sustainable agricultural practices to the Burren region of southwest Ireland, not far from Galway. This is a region with a distinctive limestone landscape and is a refuge for many unique plants and animals. The farming mostly consists on grazing of grasslands by livestock. The BFCP have been supported by EU funding.
The research effort of the program identified sustainable practices for various conditions with interaction with researchers and the community. Public extension agents are training private consultants who are guiding the farmers in adopting more sustainable practices. A key element to induce adoption is PES. The program introduced new scrub control and water quality management activities, improved feeding systems and habitat restoration methods. The PES is results based payment system that relies on scoring the various aspects of farmers performance in the field. The program enhanced agricultural productivity and profitability and improved environmental outcomes. The practices require collective action and interaction and the program serves to enhance strengthen the community. The program is part of a regional development effort to development more viable and sustainable agriculture, combined with ecotourism to strengthen the overall value to the community.
It’s a train ride from Galway to Dublin. The train was fast and modern, and every time I take a train in Europe I realize that there are ways to make America greater. When I arrived to Dublin I took a Hop On Hop Off Dublin Bus Tour, and on this tour I learned a lot about Irish history of the last 200 years. The peak of the Irish industrial might in the past was the Guinness Beer company, which covers a large lot of land and has one of the tallest buildings in town. The Guinness family played an important role in Ireland when it was poor. The family financed public goods including beautiful public parks.
But now Dublin seems like a city that recently had a facelift with many modern buildings, some being European headquarters of American companies. These companies were attracted to Ireland being part of the EU and its low tax rates. I visited the wonderful The Little Museum of Dublin and the fascinating Glasnevin Cemetery to augment my education on Ireland’s history. This history has several themes that also appear in the histories of other countries such as Israel and India. The terrible famine of 1845-1852, which killed more than a million people, was to large extent a result of cruelty and indifference of a foreign power and it intensified the desire for independence. The 1916 Irish Rebellion against the British failed, and its leaders were hanged, but the fight for independence continued under the leadership of Michael Collins. Unfortunately, a terrible civil war erupted in 1923 when Michael Collins died. But at the end, the cause of independence won and Ireland became a democratic state.
Now Dublin is a wonderful city, with great parks, many pubs, singing and bands and a lot of pride in the great Irish writers. I am looking forward to come back with my wife! This was another trip that combined teaching, learning and exploring.