A surge in interest in local food, grown using regenerative methods, resulting in more nutrient-dense tasty food that improves the environment in the long-term, has been a positive outcome of the pandemic, according to Kate Egan, the 2019 Farming for Nature ambassador.

“We have been honoured by the demand for locally grown food and how loyal our customers have been, especially given how, when the restaurants closed, it left us with a lot of unsold produce; so expanding our customer base was essential,” said Kate, who was previously an ecologist and an educator.

“I really, really hope that attitudes to food have changed, but long-term change takes time and of course not everything is to do with attitude. Some of it is accessibility, both the practical access to food and the financial.

“Cheap food is subsidised at every corner, whether it is through labour, environmental pollution, poor feeds and feeding systems.

If all food was supported the way big food industries are and all had to pay for their negative impacts – whether the cost of increased healthcare due to nutrient deficient food or the impacts of pollution, biodiversity loss or for better animal and human welfare – all food would be equal in cost and access and it would be easy to see what food people really want to eat.

Connect with the local community

Along with her partner, Tom Carlin, Kate farms a total of 9ac at Carricknagower, Ballymore, Co. Westmeath.

“3ac are in mixed pasture and native woodland for horses. There are 2ac of nut and fruit orchard, 2ac of a developing food forest and 2ac of a market garden,” she said.

In normal times, they host international volunteers throughout the year, with the produce grown sold in health food stores, restaurants and a local box scheme offered in Ballymahon, Mullingar, Athlone and Dundrum in Co. Dublin.

“With very few volunteers this year, we have had to reduce our plans for our business and put our workshops and tourism products on hold.

“We had to reduce our expectations of the volume of produce we could grow as we had no childcare either for most of the year. That being said, we feel that volunteers should be a bonus to any business, not a vital part of its functioning.

“So we were delighted this year to take on a part-time seasonal employee to help us with the harvest and we hope next year that it will have grown to two people,” said Kate.

While there were little to no international volunteers, there was a wave of local volunteers that would come and help out for a day on Mondays which was their volunteer day, all socially distanced. This was a fantastic way to connect with the local community and share our farm with people at a time when doing things outdoors was tough.

“We made the hard decision to put on hold planned workshops, events and community programmes for this year.

“We had hoped to offer workshops in growing your own food, planning a vegetable garden and growing from scratch along with additional events such as a harvest party with local chefs experimenting with our produce and even a toddler group outdoors,” Kate said.

“However, as we would not want to have people in an environment that was not safe and we need some time to prepare our processes and environment to keep participants safe, we have had to put this all on hold.

“The infrastructure we were putting in place to facilitate these programmes remains unfinished due to the backlog of work and delay in materials companies are experiencing,” she said.

Community-supported agriculture

While the couple decided not to supply the Athlone market this year and miss its buzz, they joined Neighbourfood and sell through this facility at Mullingar and Ballymahon.

“This has been working well for us this year with reduced trading fees and social distancing. We have had an increase in people taking part in our community-supported agriculture scheme this year and so have not had the need for a physical market,” said Kate.

Our community-supported agriculture scheme is an initiative where people buy a farm membership at the start of the farming year and they receive a portion of the food grown on the farm every week in return for the whole year.

“It is similar to a vegetable box scheme but different in that the customer takes the risk and reward, the same as the farmer. If a crop fails, they don’t get it – it’s not ordered in from abroad.

“However, if a crop succeeds, they reap extra. On our scheme, our customers receive extras that we don’t sell such as fruits, berries and grapes. They get a free farm visit for the family and a discount on workshops,” said Kate.

Preparing autumn crops

“Right now we are preparing our autumn crops, planting winter salads, garlic, winter onions and broadbeans and getting ready to put parts of the garden to bed for winter.

“So we are gathering up all of our compost materials and we will layer them on beds over winter covered with a water permeable membrane that blocks light; so the biology in the soil, all the little creatures, bacteria and fungi can break it down over winter and we can plant into it come spring,” she said.

Kate and Tom are looking forward to hosting their first farm walk on September 5 with Farming for Nature which is booked out.

“We are finally getting the infrastructure for our workshops finished up, so our geodome will get the plastic put on and we are planning our programme of events for next year,” Kate said.

“We will hold a Meitheal weekend, on September 19 and 20. It is limited to 15 people each day as per current restrictions on outdoor events, so we are asking people to book. It is essentially a weekend volunteering on the farm, helping us get ready for winter. There will be some tasty food and maybe even a little veg to take home.

“We are excited to be collaborating with the organic store Eato Westmeath and hopefully supplying it with some vegetables this autumn and next year. It is launching this September with an online organic store and offering a whole range of exciting things,” she said.

The Eato system is a community of organic farmers, chefs, businesses and schools that connect, collaborate and evolve our food system and environment through organic farming.

‘Loved to grow’

Next year the couple plan to resume social farming as well as launching workshops, events and a toddlers group.

“Of course very little is certain these days so we will take it slowly and respond to the situations that arise, trying to do the best for our customers and local community,” said Kate.

Farming was never on her agenda.

“When I found myself redundant in 2016, I grew for myself that first year, hoping just to grow enough food for the home. When I had grown too much I gave it away to friends and family.

It was that year I discovered I loved to grow. So in 2017, I decided to explore the idea of setting up the farm as a proper business, and in 2018 I officially launched An Ghrian Glas Farm – ‘the green sun’.

She relishes her new life and particularly enjoys seeing the trees she planted thrive.

“As farmers, we have enormous responsibility in the way that we farm. What drives me is the potential for small farms like ourselves to be a positive role model and an oasis for wildlife.”