UWRF study abroad trip explores sustainability of Irish farming

Posted April 5, 2017

A new study abroad option being offered at UW-River Falls gives students an opportunity to explore sustainable animal production in other countries while traveling around Ireland.

“Ireland: Sustainable Animal Production” was offered for the first time over J-term this year, lasting two weeks between Jan. 2 and Jan. 16. The trip began and ended in Dublin, and took students on a circular voyage around both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland while visiting various farms and cultural sites along the way.

Evan Henthorne is a fifth-year agricultural studies major at UWRF, and is one of the 26 people who went along on the trip.

“We would just go and talk to farmers,” Henthorne said, “see how they would run it. Then, later, we would come back and have a group discussion, and then determine if they were sustainable or not.”

The trip cost around $4,500, which included airfare, hotels and the majority of meals. The group spent the entire two weeks moving from place to place, never staying in one location more than a couple of days. UWRF Assistant Professors Danielle Smarsh and Amy Radunz led the trip, and the idea, Smarsh said, was to expose the students to a wider perspective on how agriculture is done across the world. A lot of emphasis was put on sustainability, and how the U.S. and Ireland compare to one another in that respect.

“Most of the farms are much smaller than our students are used to here in the U.S.,” Smarsh said. “I think because of their small acreage, they’re forced to be sustainable because they just don’t have a lot of land to work with.”

For comparison, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland combined have a surface area of a little over 40,000 square miles, according to data from the World Bank. The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey lists the surface area of the state of Wisconsin at a little under 60,000 square miles.

According to the Irish Food Board, around 140,000 family farms are crowded onto that little chunk of land (which is almost twice the total number of farms in Wisconsin), and a lot of them, Smarsh said, tend to be small and pasture graze their livestock. This means that a lot of effort is put towards ensuring that topsoil and grass are not depleted, as well as towards making full use of the available resources.

“They’re just really tied to the land in Ireland, and there is a very strong sense of… being connected to the land,” Smarsh said.

Over the course of the two-week trip, the group visited 15 different farms of varying sizes and with various types of livestock. They also met with researchers from Teagasc (pronounced “chah-gus”), which is the Irish equivalent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to talk about research goals and initiatives. By talking with locals in this way, Henthorne said, they learned about odd little differences between the U.S. and Ireland, such as the tendency of Irish farmers to use grass rather than corn as feed (due to wetter conditions), and calving periods that are concentrated into a fall and spring season (rather than year-round, like in the U.S.).

“Small things like that,” Henthorne said. “You just kinda, like, get your eyes opened to new things.”

The group also went to see various famous cultural sites, such as the Cliffs of Moher and Blarney Castle, but being able to talk with local farmers and learn how they operate was the real highlight of the trip, Henthorne said.

“Students were making connections with these farmers. They were being offered to come back and have jobs with them,” Smarsh said. “I really think it made them feel a lot closer to Ireland, and actually know the people there.”

The trip will be offered again in the future. The application, Smarsh said, will be up on the Office of International Education website soon, and will be due on April 15 of this year. The trip will take place during J-term of 2018 and will run about the same period of time, with only a few changes to which locations the group will stop at.