Horticulture enterprise grows for Mayo couple

A 7ac field given to him by his father has yielded a full-time horticulture enterprise for one Mayo man and his wife. Joe Reilly and his wife Aoife, who live near Claremorris, are enthusiastic horticulturalists and social farmers.

“I was a carpenter for about 10 years, and worked in Australia for a few years. When I returned home, I got interested in horticulture, built a polytunnel, did an organic horticulture course, and learned to grow a small amount of vegetables,” he said.

The couple met on the horticulture course at Mayo Abbey. “Aoife studied commerce but, when travelling, became interested in permaculture and worked on organic farms. I went on to become a gardener in Mayo Abbey, and then became tutor on the horticulture course. The course was discontinued at the beginning of 2016 and we set about building our market garden then.”

Joe’s father still uses 3ac of the 7ac for grazing but has agreed not to use chemicals on it as the couple are in conversion to organic certification. They supply a large variety of crops to a year-round market.

“We have two large polytunnels – previously one mushroom tunnel – for: tomatoes; cucumbers; French beans; strawberries; courgettes. We have 2.5ac of outdoor crops including: potatoes; brassicas; carrots; onions; leeks; swede; parsnips; salads; beetroot; and spinach. We also keep 50 chickens for eggs for our customers.”

The couple said it would be impossible for them to do what they do in their horticulture venture on a part-time basis, as it is so labour-intensive. “We have a part-time employee also, and next year we hope to either have a full-time employee or more part-time employees,” said Joe.

“We have a successful market stall every Friday in Market Square, Castlebar, we do a veggie box delivery scheme which means you get a variety of seasonal vegetables delivered to your door, to towns in Mayo, and we supply seasonally to three SuperValu stores.

We have had a very busy year, full of lesson learning. Firstly, the storm in February this year flattened one of our polytunnels entirely. We had our second child in June, which was smack bang in the busiest possible time of year for us. And the fox wiped out half our chicken population.

“However, we also ran a very successful market all year. We rebuilt our polytunnel almost from scratch to be stronger and surrounded by a windbreak. We built a large shed for packing and storing,” Joe added.

“We have expanded to new markets, and we have a great crop of: potatoes; onions; carrots; and turnips stored for the winter. We are building a website and busy fine-tuning our growing operation for next year.”

They were also prepared for Storm Ophelia. “We are more prepared for storms now that we have experienced the full force of one, and in preparation for the most recent one, we built a fence around the polytunnels, as well as driving every piece of large machinery we could get our hands on, around the polytunnels, to break the wind. Luckily for us, it wasn’t too strong this time around.”

The couple felt it was important for their customers to see the symbol that confirms that they are organic growers and are eagerly awaiting the finalisation of the conversion process.

“We are growing entirely without the use of chemicals. We believe by building healthy soils, we will have healthy plants that can withstand pests and diseases that conventional farmers spray for.

“We also use crop rotations and improved biodiversity to keep a healthy balance of insects on the farm. We are researching microbiology and composting techniques to continue improving our soil year after year. It’s fascinating stuff and the learning is endless.”

Financially it is tight for the couple this year. “We expected that in our first real year of business. We put all our savings into the shed and polytunnels. It is very hard to gauge if we can make a living out of this yet. Labour costs can be very high in organic farming. I think we will know better after next year.

“However, we have money to reinvest in the business for next year, which is all we expected after our first year in full operation.”

The Reillys got involved in social farming when South West Mayo Development held a talk in the area. “We liked the concept and we saw the potential of horticulture to heal. It’s a very healthy and rewarding way of life.

“We’ve had volunteers and work experience students come and thoroughly enjoy getting their hands dirty, and we could see how it could appeal to others who may not have the opportunity to experience working on an organic farm.

Gardening is often seen as a form of therapy. Aoife’s sister, who has cerebral palsy, always enjoys getting involved in farm work so we knew it had a lot of potential. For participants, it may be a total change of scenery from their day-to-day lives, and that can be a healthy thing.

“For now, we are hosting two social farming participants. They come every Friday and get involved in: weighing and packing vegetables; preparing beds in the polytunnel; collecting eggs; and weeding, depending on what suits the individual. We have just begun social farming recently and it will probably take us a bit longer to understand our participants and their needs entirely. They are still getting to know us.”

There are plenty of plans for the future of this horticulture enterprise. “We have learned so much this year from weed management to marketing strategies. We would like to: have another market on the go for next year; build up our box scheme customers; and continue learning how social farming works and fits into our farm.

“Next year will probably be another epic year of learning from our mistakes. The following year we will retire early with a hefty pension – well maybe a few more years of digging first,” laughed Joe.