In June of 2008, armed with my brand new book Put Your Stamp on the
Global Market, I headed off to Ireland to the Nuffield International Triennial
Conference. The theme: Meeting World Demand for Agricultural Products. At the
time Canadian farmers were being told: ‘If each person in China eats one more
piece of toast a day or has one more egg we will never be able to keep up with the
demand.’ Optimism in agriculture was blinding and I was hopeful that I might find
a few clients at the conference who were ready to record their memoirs with my
When I started to prepare for my trip I knew little more about Ireland than
that it had provided Canada with a goodly number of immigrants during the potato
famine of 1845-52. I also knew the famine was a great stimulus for biodiversity
and that Canadian farmers were still fighting a form of the same disease which had
caused their own crop failures of near 200 years earlier.
A little research showed that the country known as the Celtic Tiger had
gone from being one of the poorest in Europe to one of the richest in the last two
decades as unemployment fell from 20% to 7%. People from around the world
with roots in Ireland were returning to the country to be a part of the party, which
provided tech jobs and a real estate boom.
The bubble had burst early in the year but at the time I visited, people
waffled between not acknowledging it and wondering how bad it would get.
I had decided I was not going to pursue the issue of Northern Ireland and
where the country fit into Britain; that was a much bigger issue than I had time for
and there are lots of books on the topic. If I really wanted to know I could do some
reading; as the Irish say, ‘We produce more history than we can consume.’
One of the pre-conference activities was a night at the Dog Races. I love
dog races and had been to a horse race in England where there was no house to
take your bets; instead a line of bookies posted their odds on a blackboard, which
changed as the race approached. I hoped for the same system here and was not
I had already met long time friends Tony and Kathy Reilly (more on them
in another chapter) when we arrived at the track. I was excited to see a row of
bookies standing beside their chalkboards with their satchels just below. You
placed your bet with the individual and he placed your money and chit in the bag.
If you won, you went back with your half of the ticket, he took the funds out of the
satchel and paid you. Pretty simple.
The entire area looked just like it should. There were old guys leaning up
against the rail with a view of the track, willing to share their views on just about
anything in the world—from dog racing to international politics. The bookies were
all characters using any trick in their repertoire to get your bet; all had a trademark
appearance and barked out the odds they were offering. They were not afraid to
call you over and offer you a special deal if you placed your bet with them.
Of course there were adult refreshments available from a window that did a
brisk business; somehow it seems that gambling and alcohol are offered together
in most parts of the world. The pairing would probably rate highest on the
‘Inseparable List’. There was limited food available and I had heard the comment
before in the British Isles that ‘they are there to watch the sporting event not the
plethora of snacks that American sporting arenas offer’.
The greyhounds did not disappoint and the entertainment was top notch.
Most dogs ran the track but some ran the wrong way while others would cut across
the infield. It was good fun and along with the races I got to visit with some of the
locals who happened to be farmers. I returned to my room entirely satisfied with
the day, and a few pounds lighter for my betting experience.
As I said at the outset, Canadian farmers were being told that the world
demand for food would keep growing and boom times were just around the corner.
A decade earlier I had spent my Nuffield Scholarship time in Europe and
concluded the supports for farmers there were not about to end and treasuries
would continue to carry the load. Europeans felt that strongly about food security
and a large part of my conclusion was based on the fact that people in power were
kids during WW2 and had been hungry. I did not consider that they were passing
the reins of power to the next generation who had not known hunger and were not
as willing to pay the price necessary for food security. Oops
Now in 2008 farmers were being told the demand from Asia would be their
Auke Crossen of Rabobank told the gathering the demand from Asia was
sustainable and it would be a challenge to grow enough for the burgeoning market.
John O’Reilly, a Dublin based Food Industry Analyst challenged Crossen
and claimed that statement was based on a linear projection and extrapolation was
dangerous. He warned producers would have to be more efficient with land and
Maurice Keane of Glanbia Foods predicted there would be less government
intervention and more price volatility. He asked, “How hungry does Europe have
to get before GMOs will be accepted?”
The conference featured top-notch speakers, obviously chosen to bring
various and sometimes opposing views. It did leave me with thoughts that kept
playing over in my mind long after I was home, and they did generate some
* The amount of productive land is finite
* Policy will continue to have a significant influence on agriculture
* Global trade requires a great deal of efficiency to handle products with a
finite shelf life
* Technology has delivered great advances but we need to bring the wider
community to an understanding of the benefits to all mankind
* Science should not be viewed as good or bad but as a way to understand
the risks and benefits of new applications.
It was billed as the most popular tourist attraction in the country, so I felt
obligated to tour the Guinness brewery while in Dublin. I have been on a few
brewery tours, mostly in the US, and have spent some time in taprooms of various
facilities. I am mature enough to acknowledge that just because I may not rate the
beverage as the best in the world does not mean there is anything wrong with the
beer. Guinness would fall into that category. While I do enjoy a glass of stout this
one is not my favourite—and before we get into that discussion let’s clear this up.
Guinness is a dark beer, not a heavy beer; the two characteristics need not come in
the same brew.
The tour was excellent and obviously this top tourist attraction is used to
handling crowds. It was not a huge crowd the day I attended but everything was
done with clockwork accuracy and excellent viewing stations. The brewery itself
occupies a city block and is connected to a malt facility and shipping department,
which adds to the size—and I am sure to the tax base of Dublin.
It was different from the typical tour of a US brewery in that it focussed on
the quality of the ingredients and how concerned the parent company was about
the ingredients that went into its brew. It is my experience that in tours of
American breweries you are bombarded with numbers, the amount of barley that
goes into the malt house, and the length of the trains that carry it. Then you are
overwhelmed by production numbers, and by how many kegs of beer roll off the
assembly line every day.
The marketing department at Guinness had done their job and obviously
had input in the signage that guided you through the cavernous building. It was all
done to catch the attention of the 20-something crowd with modern lighting that
provided a blue glow to much of the facility.
Like every other brewery tour I have been on you end up in the taproom
where you are given a reasonable sample of the product; this one came with a
pouring lesson. A huge part of the Guinness image is the proper pour and we were
allowed to try our hand at drawing a glass from a tap. Not a single potential
bartender in our group—judging by those results, and after a sample or two you
are guided through the ubiquitous gift shop that has a bit of everything
emblazoned with the Harp logo and/or the Guinness name.
I also took the time to visit a lesser know tourist attraction, a weaver and his
wife who operated a cottage industry near one of the farms we visited. The weaver
was using a traditional loom and producing the ultra traditional herringbone tweed.
His wife, who served as the tour guide and hostess, told us how the wool was
harvested and processed from their own flock of sheep (washed, carded, dyed and
spun) before weaving.
The gift shop offered an array of knitted hats, scarves, and bolts of material
for those so inclined or had the skill to turn the material into a garment. I admit to
being tempted by a tweed vest but upon deeper consideration realized what
worked for a hunt in rural Ireland might not have a place in my wardrobe in
Southern Manitoba. The gentleman was turning out some beautiful material even
to my untrained eye, and while the prices seemed a bit steep for my pocket I am
sure that he was not making an exorbitant living producing tweed on a handloom.
The economy was on the downturn at the time I visited and that may have
contributed to the attitude, but I think it was more that the spirit of the boom times
had not left or perhaps it was just a tradition that carried on regardless of the
economics of the day. I mentioned that I visited a few breweries and I am not
opposed to the occasional malt beverage; I think of myself as non-judgmental of
those who choose to have an adult beverage, but I was overwhelmed by the
consumption at the typical Irish pub crowd on any given night.
I have visited places where a lot of the focus on Saturday night is getting
drunk and fighting, but that cannot be said of the Irish. They see no need to wait
for Saturday—any night is as good as the next or the last. I conducted my research
at several establishments on several nights and found the results to be conclusive:
patrons were there with a purpose—to get drunk—and the last dance of the
evening had nothing to do with the music. It was about getting a partner and
heading outside for a round of fisticuffs. I must also say that I never felt threatened
and was not once invited to the dance, it was confined to the willing participants,
but drinking and fighting would rate as two of the most popular pastimes I saw in
the general population.