As part of a new series, That’s Farming interviews 2019 Nuffield Scholars. In this article, editor, Catherina Cunnane, speaks to Ciara O’ Halloran.
To begin, tell us about your background.
I grew up around my father’s seafood business involved in the export of live shellfish, such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, and mussels.
Having qualified in outdoor education & leisure, I went on to undertake youth and community development work in Ireland, Zambia and Kenya. The sea called me back, and I began working with family and oysters.
I formed the Redbank Food Co in 2015, a company working with local oyster and mussel farmers in getting the product to market. We branded the oysters as Flaggy Shore Oysters in 2016 and have been growing this aspect of the business since. In 2017/2018, we started welcoming visitors into our dispatch centre in Co. Clare for educational tours and experiences.
What influenced your decision to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship?
I had heard that BIM was getting involved in sponsoring a scholarship. The more I looked into Nuffield; I saw the opportunity of travel, capacity building and leadership.
I spoke with several previous scholars, and everyone spoke so highly of the experience. We had just started looking at diversifying our business further into tourism. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to see what else was happening overseas and what best practice may be. And I love to travel! So this was a perfect opportunity to combine both!
What was your topic?
The development of food tourism, its use as an educational tool and income generating for small businesses.
Why did you select this topic?
We had just started into the area of tours; I quickly started realising it benefits within our business, from the enjoyable aspect meeting visitors, marketing direct and importantly generating revenue in what I found an enjoyable manner.
I wanted to look at what other ways experiences food tourism was operating, globally. And investigate further its potential. As I travelled, I discovered it’s value in opening the dialogue between consumers and producers, and it’s opportunity to act as a platform to educate consumers around food production.
What has your experience as a Nuffield Scholar entailed?
The application and selection process was in-depth, with several interviews. But, if I’m honest, I wasn’t familiar with Nuffield to its full extent before interviews started.
I had just heard of it a few weeks before applications closed. I was learning about Nuffield as I was doing my application process.
Once I got accepted for the scholarship, I was surprised to receive so many congratulations from those that had heard of it and knew the opportunity I was about to embark on, including a friend who knew of it from an English radio drama series!
BIM primarily sponsored my scholarship.
What was fantastic and surprising about the entire was the access to people and how accommodating people were when you were travelling and mentioned you were on a Nuffield scholarship and research trip.
Everyone was so accommodating with their time. I first noticed it when on our GFP and we were meeting with country ministers and top executives and how much time they were giving us to ask questions as well as question us on our own countries experience.
The experience started in Iowa for the Contemporary Scholar’s Conference in March 2019. I went straight from there on to my Global Focus programme, which took in Washington DC, Florida, Mexico, Brazil, Netherlands and New Zealand.
I opted to stay in New Zealand for a further week for my personal research. A number of years ago, I lived in New Zealand, so it was like returning home in some ways. In total, I was away just over eight weeks.
In September, I visited Scotland, and then Cornwall, Wales, attended the Conference on global food security with FAO in Rome and attended conferences in London.
I returned to the US earlier this year briefly to Massachusetts, and I had hoped to return to Scotland and Italy this spring, but unfortunately, that did not happen.
I had started gathering my information together and started writing the report early this year. When we entered our first lockdown, I compiled the main body of the report.
At the time of writing, I thought we were just in lockdown for a few weeks and saw the opportunity to get typing. Little did I know that the topic I was writing about would be heavily impacted for the entire year.
It ensured it was difficult to write in parts as the tourism industry was so impacted by Covid, but I felt that the area I was focusing on – Niche experiences has the capacity to bounce back.
What were your key findings?
- Firstly, experiences in food tourism can be a solution to the disconnect between the consumer and the producer;
- If done right, they can be a viable alternative to scaling production for smaller businesses and support the existing business;
- Experiences in food tourism help support the UN’s SDG’s, by acting as an income support in rural areas and also have the potential to play a strong role in developing nations as well as the more developed;
- Ireland’s tourism agency is putting a strong emphasis and strategies in place to promote food tourism within Ireland;
- There is consumer demand to look for niche experiences and experience another way of life, providing an emotional connection to the producer and their product;
- There are various ways to connect and educate consumers through larger-scale operations or smaller experiences. I see great potential in the smaller niche experiences and, in particular, now in light of Covid 19. Smaller experiences allow for smaller numbers, authentic unique experiences for a higher cost that proves viable to the host;
- Ireland has a strong reputation amongst tourism bodies and state agencies in other countries for its food tourism through its established food trails;
- Ireland has great potential to marry its strong reputable and quality-driven agri-food and drink industry with its strong tourism industry (when this opens up again) and the agri-food and drink industry have a lot to benefit from this.
What does your report recommend?
Within Ireland, the agri-Food and drink industry should continue to collaborate with tourism agencies to support diversification into experiences in food tourism.
Ireland should focus on authentic small niche experiences.
However, it is currently an unregulated area. In order for the industry to benefit, as well the hosts and local communities, there needs to be a framework or code of best practice or assurance quality mark to ensure all experiences both in food and drink are offering quality to the consumer, the host and the industry.
Would you recommend a Nuffield Scholarship?
Absolutely, in a heartbeat. I have met some fantastic people, and have contacts globally that I look forward to visiting when time allows.
The conversations with other scholars are engaging and encourage critical thinking as well as open discussions that have opened my mind further.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of this experience?
Being around a group of scholars that wanted to learn and question from each other as well as from industry.
Also, the opportunity to visit businesses from Bon Futuro in Brazil, to Mussel Farms in New Zealand, to edible microgreens company Koppert Cress in the Netherlands. To get a global perspective on food production was a privilege.
What was difficult?
It was a challenge to prepare to be away from the business and family for eight weeks straight. However, it was great to discover it can be done!! It was also a challenge to condense so much learning and information into one report!
Where to from here?
It has been a very strange year, but I look forward to hopefully putting an emphasis on further developing our Oyster experiences next year. To transfer some of my learning to the community groups, I am involved with such as Cuan Beo and the Burren Eco-Tourism network.
And look at how I can assist other primary producers looking at diversifying their businesses into food tourism. I am excited to meet future scholars and reconnect with more Nuffield scholars when we can.
Sum up your experience as a Nuffield Scholar
As a Nuffield scholar, it was inspiring to meet so many farmers, fishermen, and people working in all aspects of the agri-food industry that were striving to question and learn further, to do better for their industry, the environment and it’s people.
Lunch and learn series
Nuffield Ireland will host a week-long virtual ‘lunch and learn’ series, hosted by the returning 2019 Nuffield Scholars.
The lunchtime series will be free to attend and will feature a 10-minute presentation at 1.30 pm. Each day, scholars will outline the key findings of their report.
Ciara will present the findings of her studies at 1:30 pm on Wednesday (November 25th) – See here.