A Donegal man who works as a community garda in Castlebar, Co.Mayo has created a vegetable enterprise on what was once a bog, using a ‘no dig’ method.
Garda Mick Toland and his wife Denise have formed Meara Glas through which they sell vegetables and home baking from their home at Derrycoosh.
“I’m from a farming background in Donegal, a small mountain farm, with a few sheep, in Malin Head,” Mick explained.
“We bought the bogland at Raheenbar, on the outskirts of Castlebar, in 2018, it comprises 15ac of reclaimed bog. 10ac of that was broken into a field and the rest was bog. Denise and I started growing vegetables there and we have 20 sheep as well.”
When Covid-19 started in March 2020, Mick and Denise decided to plant extra vegetables and when harvest time came round, they had an abundance of vegetables left over, so they started giving it to friends and neighbours.
“When they tasted it, I was toying with the idea of producing and selling our own veg and when we got that feedback, we thought we’d go ahead and give it a lash,” Mick said.
“We grow the veg, my wife does home baking and the kids help out. We sell the veg locally every Wednesday and Saturday from our home and supply different veg and butcher shops and restaurants in Castlebar and Westport.
“We have an acre of it for growing veg but we plan to expand. We use a ‘no dig’ method.
“Our sheep are in and out of the sheds at this time of year and the bedding from last year will top up the beds for the spring coming and we plant directly into that. So basically, what we do is we pile it up, we let it lie for 12 months, we let the worms, the microorganisms and all that break all the manure down,” Mick said.
The community garda explained that it is based on the concept of a forest floor where the nutrients go back into the ground.
“Rather than us disturbing the ground, the earthworms and the microorganisms do all the digging for us,” he said.
“The other advantage for using that particular method is that you don’t disturb the ground, you’re not bringing the weak seed to the top that competes with your veg for nutrients.”
Mick explained that they are not organically certified but are organic in everything but name.
“We wouldn’t use any pesticides or sprays. All our manure comes from our own sheds, our own sheep. We would then pile that up, let it break down and put it back in the beds the following year,” Mick continued.
“I’m still working as a garda, but the master plan is that when we have the business up and running, that I would be doing it full-time then. It’s going to take a bit of time. When we started out, the feedback in autumn of 2020 was that there was a huge demand for veg.
“People have this misconception that you need acres and acres of ground to produce an abundance of veg when in actual fact, you don’t. If we were producing for ourselves, we would easily produce enough veg to keep our household running for a year without having to go near a shop,” Mick added.
Value of ‘no-dig’
Mick said that the vegetable enterprise is about “boxing clever” and making life as easy as possible for the family.
“Having said that, we get a massive return from the ‘no dig’ method. We did trial beds when we would have delved beds up the traditional way and put spuds into them. We got three times the amount of return on the ‘no dig’ beds than on the traditional beds,” Mick said.
“We would be kind of unusual in the method that we use. And the fact that we’re not disturbing the ground as well from a biodiversity and climate change point of view, you’re not releasing the same amount of carbon into the air.
“The ground that we have earmarked for this spring to be added to the garden we naturally blinded that off with silage covers last July and we starved it of light.
“Come February we will strip the covers all back and we start layering up the ground. All the vegetation that would be competing with your veg is naturally all gone,” he explained.
The Tolands grow all sorts of vegetables but their main product is a salad bag.
“We sell them from the end of April up to mid- to late-October. A lot of them are grown in our polytunnels and then we also grow Queens spuds, cherry tomatoes, scallions, leeks, onions, carrots, parsnips and peas,” Mick said.
“I know myself from having a young family that it’s great to be able to let the kids off for half an hour or an hour and you’re still there to keep an eye on them. They’re in the outdoors.
“It was refreshing to see the kids pulling up the wet gear and getting out in touch with nature. I feel that’s so important,” Mick added.
“If there were three things we could pass onto the next generation, I think they should be growing your own food, sourcing our own water and electricity. I feel if you had those three elements, you would be self-sufficient.”