Autumn Seminar 2014

At 3am on Saturday 1st November I set off for the Rural Youth Europe (RYE) Autumn Seminar in Denmark. I met fellow Macra member, Bríd Cooney, for the first time in Dublin Airport from where we flew to Frankfurt and then on to Billund (the home of Lego) in Denmark. We were collected at the airport and driven to the venue outside Ribe. The venue for the seminar was ideal. There were ten cabins which housed 3 participants each, a cabin for the facilitators and a large club house which contained a kitchen and dining area, toilets, showers, a classroom and a large and comfortable social area upstairs.

The participants came from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and even Azerbaijan. They were farmers and non-farmers alike but were all interested in the seminar theme “Food for the Future”. The week was spent exploring this theme through a combination of group discussions, guest speakers, workshops and field trips. Before we got down to business however the group underwent some very successful ice-breaking and team building exercises. The highlight of the trip was probably the ‘international buffet’ on the second night. Every participant brought two delicacies from their country and it was all laid out for a buffet. In true Macra style every participant had also brought their nations favourite drinks. Needless to say a mighty night was had and the group bonded brilliantly.

Monday morning was spent discussing different food production systems such as conventional agriculture, organic production, hydroponics and aquaculture. The participants were divided into groups and given a system to explore and then present to the other groups. This was very effective at including all participants and also allowing us to learn from each other and teach ourselves.
In the evening we had to guest speakers on food waste. One gave us some startling facts about the amount of food which is wasted and the implications this has for the environment and market. The other was an entrepreneur who had founded a company to collect food waste and exploit its potential for energy production. It was an eye opener that food waste is not only a challenge but also presents an opportunity for innovators.

On Tuesday we had two excursions. The first was to an impressive vegetable farm. Axel Mansson is farming 800ha having started his career with just 37ha. He grows primarily organic produce and the processing facility was fascinating to behold. The sheer scale of the enterprise was baffling with scores of tractors, irrigators and assorted machinery in the sheds.

We then visited a farm which had recently converted from an intensive 2000 pig farm to a 250 goat farm. The farmer’s wife is producing cheese from the goats’ milk. Once again the visit was very interesting but the take home lesson for me from both farms was to be brave when making decisions. The first farmer told how when he first planted lettuce his neighbours told him he was crazy. The second farmer was over 50 when he decided to completely change his system. It was an inspirational lesson. That night we were entertained by local young farmers who had set up a competition of games such as welly toss, back to back lego construction and constructing the tallest lego tower. (Delighted that my team won)

Wednesday was spent discussing our individual carbon footprints. The evening had us all in groups cooking our own meals which we then had to present to the others and give a breakdown of the ingredients and carbon footprint. This really provided food for thought! That night we had a special treat in the form of a ghost walk and a campfire around which we baked bread and toasted marshmallows. This was followed by some R&R is the Saunas and hot tub also at the venue!

On Thursday we visited an organic pig farm with 550 sows rearing their piglets outdoors. This was another very enjoyable farm visit and was followed by a trip to a pig slaughterhouse owned by the Cooperative Danish Crown. This facility could kill 103,000 pigs per week and the sheer scale of the factory was incredible. For me seeing rows upon rows of carcasses really drove home the challenge of feeding the world’s population. That evening we watched a Belgian film called LoveMEATender. The film was extremely provocative and the group had some heated debate afterwards.  It was yet another very effective method of engaging discussion.

On Friday the weeks learning culminated in each group doing a project on a food product designed for the market in 2050. It was an intriguing process and gave us the opportunity to pull all we had learned during the week together. That night was especially memorable as we had a Christmas party! Santa even turned up to give us all presents and the traditional Danish Christmas dinner was delicious. We then spent the night singing and dancing each participant’s national songs and dances.

Participants began departing in the wee hours of Saturday morning and I was surprised at how genuinely sad I felt to be saying goodbye to what was a fantastic week. I was never in bed before 3am and I was up again each morning at 8. I learned to say cheers in various languages and I have made great friends from across the continent. I’ve picked up a plethora of small games and ice-breakers which will no doubt be of use for future Macra events and needless to say I have learned loads about the future of food production.

I’d like to thank Macra na Feirme for giving me the opportunity to represent them. I’d also like to commend my travel companion Bríd to the organisation. She was an excellent ambassador for the organisation being ever considerate, kind and constantly smiling.  Thanks Bríd. Thank you Macra.

-          Colm O’Leary, Berrings Macra