The lack of supports for local production and small scale farming enterprises has been highlighted by a Galway-based couple who supply high-end restaurants such as Loam and Lignum.
Fergal Anderson and Emanuela Russo run a market garden in Loughrea.
“We moved back to Ireland in 2011 to start a farm in an empty field, what was an old hay meadow out the back of my parents’ house,” said Fergal.
He and his partner, Emanuela who is from Milan, were both working in food and agricultural policy issues in Brussels, advocating for agroecological farming systems and food sovereignty.
“My parents had bought the 30ac of land around their house in 1990 or so and planted 25ac of the 30 with woodland. They got a small establishment grant for the trees but don’t get any payments as they didn’t have entitlements or anything like that,” he said.
“Between 1990 and 2011 the hay meadow was rented to a local farmer. The land is shallow and free draining. It’s perfect for a hay meadow but not great for growing vegetables, but we didn’t let that deter us,” Fergal said.
“We started small in 2011 and have slowly built things up, letting the farm pay for itself really, but not paying us anything. We now have four tunnels, and use most of the old meadow as well as what we call the hump field beside it for vegetables, apple orchards, soft fruits and other crops.
“We’ve always been sure to leave room for nature on the farm. In nearly every decision we make we ask ourselves if it’s good or bad for wildlife, insects, birds etc.
“That might be a small thing like leaving a crop to flower so there is nectar for the the bees and other insects or just recognising that sometimes what seems ‘untidy’ or ‘overgrown’ is actually a habitat. There’s something living in there,” he said.
Growing vegetables and green manure
“We grow vegetables pretty intensively on a 90cm wide bed, and when we’re not growing vegetables in those beds we invariably grow a green manure.
“That means we grow a crop – like phacelia or buckwheat in the summer, or rye and vetch in the winter – which covers the ground and brings up the nutrients to prevent leaching, really important on our free draining ground.
“The green manures are a great habitat and food source, especially the summer ones. We have two three year rotations on the farm and we use green manures in those rotations so there are always a few areas which are great for insects, bees and birds,” said Fergal.
“We then use a flail mower to shred up those green manures and feed the plants back into the soil. We also use the flail mower to shred up crop residues and let that go back into the ground too.
“When we started we did everything with our neighbour’s Massey 35X, the greatest tractor ever made.
“We since bought a tractor of our own but the same size so we are still working in kind of permanent beds and running the tractor wheels in the paths the whole time. I use a three furrow plough with the centre board taken out to keep the beds ridged and the paths the same.
“We manage the woodland just for fuel and timber for ourselves and encouraging natural regeneration of new saplings.”
Small scale, local production
The couple started supplying local markets and doing boxes but now focus on restaurants.
“In particular, we have worked really closely with our close friends, Enda McEvoy and Sinead Meacle from Loam and now Eán their restaurants in Galway,” Fergal continued.
“Recently we’ve started supplying Lignum which is a great new restaurant just up the road and the young chef there, Danny Africano, has become a good friend.
“We’re happy to have a few restaurants that understand the work and effort that goes into growing quality food and in particular the labour involved. They seem to understand a lot better than the Department of Agriculture the need to support small scale local suppliers.
“In fact most people seem to get the importance of local markets, of having food grown and raised near to the place where it is going to be eaten, and in good conditions for nature, animals, vegetables and farmers.
“The reality is that a lot of the time animals, vegetables, farmers and nature are not the priority in food systems.
“What seems to be more important is making big profits and ensuring the companies supplying inputs like machinery, fertilisers, feeds and other things, or making sure supermarkets and factories selling cheap food don’t get upset, rather than making food and farming about the land, people and community, which is what we’re trying to do in the new farm representative organisation, Talamh Beo,” Fergal said.
“We want everyone in the country to be eating the best quality local food produced by farmers making a fair living in their community.
“We want more people to be able to make a living from the land, and for that to be an option for people and a profession which people can be proud of and interested in,” he said.
“We are involved with Talamh Beo because we feel there are models of farming that aren’t recognised or supported through government policy supports – local producers using short supply chains for one,” Fergal continued.
“In general, we feel Talamh Beo can represent farmers working for agro ecology and a rights-based approach, rather than agribusiness.
“People like what we’re doing and a lot of people are happy to visit small farms like ours but the reality is that it’s very hard to make a good living, especially when you start off from scratch.
“We receive zero farm payments. It means we need to work twice as hard to try and get by. There’s a lot of young people who would love to flood Ireland with the best local food you can raise/grow/make but there’s no policy framework there to support them at all,” said Fergal.
“It’s crazy that small scale local production in particular is completely ignored. It seems you just get rewarded if you have more land.
“We have a small area which is incredibly productive in terms of producing food and a big area of habitat for wildlife. If we could get some supports we might even be able to do more, maybe employ some people part time. It’s just too tight otherwise,” Fergal said.