00:00 Saturday 19 May 2012  Written by Carol Gilbert

European 'first' for Skibbereen

September start for UCC masters degree

course in organic horticulture approved

POSSIBLY the best news that West Cork has had for some time is the announcement that the first Masters Programme in Organic Horticulture in Europe, has received the green light and will commence this September.

The MSc course, which will be accredited by UCC, will take place at Liss Ard Estate on the outskirts of Skibbereen.

One of the main supporters of the course and whose input has been vital to it being implemented, is local resident, David Puttnam, who commented on the announcement, 'I'm really delighted, and ten years from now, if we get this right, I believe it will be seen as one of the more important developments in the evolving story of West Cork in general, and Skibbereen in particular. I'm thrilled to have played a small part in helping bring this about.'

The idea of a horticulture college stemmed from a speech David Puttnam made in Ballydehob autumn food festival, less than two years ago, when he highlighted the amount of food, plants and flowers imported into Ireland and how conducive the West Cork area was in particular to horticulture and growing these imported products locally.

Voluntary group

Members of the Carbery Enterprise Group, a voluntary group, with help from a number of local people, progressed the idea of a horticulture college for West Cork. Another step forward in the story was the co-operation from Roman Stern, owner of Liss Ard, who was very supportive of the estate hosting the graduate course.

On receiving the news that the UCC course was commencing this September, Mr Stern commented: 'This is indeed all fantastic news. Liss Ard is delighted to be able to provide the facility for the college free of charge and proud and honoured to be part of shaping such an exciting project for West Cork.'

A statement released by Professor Peter Jones, School of BEES, UCC, who together with Professor John O'Halloran, Head of BEES, UCC, has actioned the setting up of this course, explained in more detail the reasoning behind the MSc course being set up and being set up at Liss Ard estate.

'University College Cork, in collaboration with Liss Ard Estate, Skibbereen, starting in September, this year is offering the first MSc in Organic Horticulture in Europe. The programme will be run on a campus at the 200-acre Liss Ard Estate in the heart of the artisan food centre of Ireland.

'Organic horticulture' was selected because, currently, almost 80% of organic fruit and vegetables on sale in Ireland is imported, opening up the possibility of significant import substitution, as well as new jobs, by stimulating organic fruit and vegetable production in Ireland. The high level of productivity available from a small area of land also means that small-scale enterprises can be commercially viable.

'The 12-month programme will provide students with extensive training and experience in the practice and principles of growing organic fruit and vegetables, using a three-acre organic garden on the campus.

'Topics included in the curriculum will include growing crops in polytunnels and in the open ground, crop protection, soils, propagation, fruit tree maintenance (using the Liss Ard walled garden as a demonstration site), inter-cropping, variety selection, crop rotation, plant nutrition, composting etc.

'Students will also be trained in business development, to encourage some to set up their own organic food production businesses. As part of this training, students will operate Farmers' Market stalls supplied with produce they have grown.

Holding back

'One of the factors holding back organic production in Ireland is the lack of research into

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how to grow organically in the unique climatic conditions of this part of the world, where the mild climate allows plant growth almost 12 months of the year. An important part of the programme will be the two research projects which each student will undertake.

'Not only will these projects provide the students with invaluable first-hand experience of growing and experimenting, they will also provide the students with the tools to determine whether new techniques give better results when they transfer their new-found knowledge to their own plots.

'The results of the students' research will build into a body of knowledge on how to produce organic food crops in the west of Ireland, and it is intended that the UCC-Liss Ard campus will develop in the future into a Research Centre for Organic Horticulture, with the staff from the programme providing extension support services for organic growers in the area.

'UCC has a well-earned reputation for excellence in research appropriate for organic growers. Examples of current research projects include vermicomposting, the use of seaweed extracts for increased yield and disease resistance, novel crops, selection of improved crop varieties, biological control of diseases and pests and constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment.

Experience of

'The programme will be taught by staff with considerable experience of organic growing and by plant scientists who will teach the latest applications of plant research appropriate to organic growers. This might be how to increase cold tolerance in plants by rubbing the tops of the plants with a stick on a daily basis ('mechanical hardening'), or how to use waste products like crabshell to control pests of crops. A state-of-the-art videoconferencing system will allow students to discuss their work with experts from around the world.

'The number of students will be limited to a maximum of 15 students per year. In addition to students from Ireland, we hope to encourage applications from the rest of Europe, North America and beyond, for places on this unique programme in one of the most beautiful parts of the world,' concluded Professor Jones' statement. Professor Jones may be contacted by email on p.jones@UCC.ie for further information.

Carbery Enterprise Group is a voluntary group whose focus is to bring sustainable jobs to the region and to help incoming businesses who wish to set up in the area. They act in a supportive role providing information and expertise and they may be contacted on 087-2222462.

Arthur Little is the general manager of Liss Ard Estate and he may be contacted on 028-40000 for further information.

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