Grace Cooney’s feet are now firmly planted in the soil of her farm in the beautiful and historic Lough an Leagh area in her native east Cavan, where she is keen to give back through social farming.
Her journey back home to the farm and her plans to build a sustainable living from her smallholding, encompass many of the themes that are woven through life in rural Ireland, past and present.
These include: emigration; going away to college and work; coming home; wanting to give something back; and increasingly trying to make a living from the land in new ways, such as social farming and direct selling.
Grace grew up on a smallholding as one of four children.
“There was always time for running around the fields, being around the animals and nature as well as the simple things like picking stones, collecting sticks for the fire,” she said.
Spreading her wings
Like many, the Cavan woman got to the stage where other interests took over. She studied languages and European business studies at college and spent summers in France and Germany.
After graduation, she did the European orientation programme with the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) in Germany and became very interested in the food and beverage sector. After coming back, she worked with a range of employers including Superquinn.
“They were really interested in working closely with the supplier and I loved that,” she said.
She travelled all over the world and slowly the seeds were sown to take her life in a different direction. In 2016, Grace and her husband Gerry moved back to east Cavan, where they bought a small farm previously owned by her father’s family.
Return to the farm
“My parents were very encouraging and a huge support, for which I am truly grateful,” she said.
The arrival of their daughter helped to kickstart their plan to see how they could build a sustainable living from the smallholding, and give back.
While Gerry operates from a Dublin base and commutes frequently, Grace has taken time away from the corporate environment to focus her time and energies on developing the farm, 3ac of which is fenced off for growing, with two polytunnels in place.
She is not selling to the market yet but is experimenting with different systems for growing without herbicides or pesticides. The plan is to have a small unit next to the tunnels where salads can be washed, weighed and packed for the marketplace.
Following the completion of a start your own business course, she would like to do the Food Academy Programme in the very near future and work with ACORNS in building a strong working network with likeminded women. Her plan is to focus initially on leaves, herbs and on seasonal offerings such as pumpkins.
“I feel it is important that we know where our food is coming from and that the animal has been treated well, with no chemicals or pesticides involved in growing the food,” she said.
“I intend to go down the organic route. I’m part of a generation that wants to live a simpler life, enjoying the bounty of the countryside yet not spending a fortune to attain it.”
Since returning home to Cavan, Grace and Gerry have also re-embraced their local community, helping out with the local Gaelic football team.
“When you are travelling, you see how happy people are, even where they have little. We have been so blessed and it’s time for me to give back,” said Grace.
In early 2020, a Syrian family became Grace and Gerry’s new neighbours.
Interestingly, Syria had been one of the places from their travels that they loved the most. The family arrived just before Covid-19 restrictions began and so didn’t really have a chance to integrate.
Grace and her family did everything they could to help and give back.
16-year-old Ahmad has been invited into their home and he has been on the farm most days for the last year.
“He just wants something to do. His English skills have improved immensely since he’s been out and involved more,” said Grace.
She has long been interested in pursuing social farming on her smallholding. This has involved training with Social Farming Ireland and visiting other social farms. Earlier this year Ahmad and two Leaving Cert Applied classmates from Bailieborough Community School completed an 8-week social farming placement on the farm.
For Grace, this was a really good experience.
“Working with three diverse and decent lads was very rewarding. One of them had never been on a farm before. I learned a lot about not assuming what people can do and how to manage dynamics within the group. And they got to see where their food comes from,” she said.
“Ahmad is studying agricultural science as part of this Leaving Cert Applied so he is learning first hand about propagation, seeds, planting and pest control. I’m trying to do a ‘no-dig’ system and they ironically thought it was a lot of work.”
The farm has some drystock and two donkeys that were cared for by the lads. Wild deer, pheasants and buzzards are regularly seen on the farm, which is in a tranquil area.
Biodiversity improvements are also at the heart of how Grace farms and manages her land.
The Cavan woman is looking forward to working with other groups of people who have experienced challenges in their lives.
“I do envisage social farming as an important element of my farm going forward because I feel there is so much to learn and give on both sides. There are so many benefits. To see progress and your efforts rewarded in a meaningful way is a bonus,” she said.
Grace sees her experience to date as being something that will help her overcome barriers and build relationships.
“I suppose travelling a lot teaches you to connect with people, even with a smile,” she added.
Like many of her contemporaries who grew up on farms, Grace has taken a long and winding road back home. Along the way, she has been fortunate in her opportunities for travel, work and education.
She is bringing all of that learning about life, people, and the values that really matter back to her own place and her own community. Social farming and supporting others to benefit from the farm and the beautiful landscape in which it is nestled, are part of those aims.