“As farmers, we have an enormous responsibility in the way that we farm. How we design our farms can either support nature and work with natural systems, or it can eliminate nature and damage natural systems.” That’s the perspective of farming for nature ambassador 2019, Kate Egan.
She farms a total of 9ac in Ballymore, Co. Westmeath, with her partner Tom Carlin.
“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 then 2ac of a market garden,” she said.
“We host international volunteers throughout the year who help us out on the farm. We sell our produce in health food stores and restaurants and offer a local box scheme in Ballymahon, Mullingar, Athlone and Dundrum in Dublin.
“We are based in the midlands, pretty much the exact centre of the country. From around May to October we sell our produce at a market in Athlone town, near the castle. We also run farm tours and offer social farming services for people with mental health care, intellectual disability or youth at risk,” said Kate.
I never intended on being a farmer. In my previous life I was an ecologist and an educator. When I found myself redundant in 2016, I grew for myself that first year, hoping just to grow enough food for the home. I grew too much and gave it away to friends and family.
“It was that year I discovered I loved to grow. I would go out and check my seedlings with as much excitement as a child opening gifts at Christmas, getting up early to see what Santa had left.
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’.
Incredibly satisfying work
Kate revels in her new way of life and takes the responsibility of farming for nature seriously. “When I worked for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), I enjoyed getting to know a landscape really well, that you knew where the different animals lived and I could identify every tree in the area.
“This is even better. I have planted most of the trees myself and seeing them thrive and develop is an incredible experience. It is more work than I could have dreamed.
“However, I am learning constantly about the business and learning from the experience of other market gardeners, it allows me to systemise our growing system to become more efficient and effective. It is incredibly satisfying work,” she said.
Farming for nature, Kate said, is vital. “My first love was our environment and studying the science of how it worked as an holistic system.
“So, when I started farming I knew that I would have to prioritise nature on our farm. I researched and found incredible models of nature-friendly farming and also farming that uses nature’s own systems and processes to maximise growth.
“So what I do involves everything from protecting the existing hedgerows on our farm to building topsoil using microbiology, creating habitats such as ponds and woodland to increase biodiversity and ‘no dig’ farming to reduce the release of carbon, the leaching of nutrients and degradation of our soil.
“All of these actions feed and support our farm ecosystem,” Kate said.
What drives me is the potential for small farms like ourselves to be a positive role model and an oasis for wildlife. I really get a lot of satisfaction out of growing plants, or should I say of nurturing and taking care of the soil, so the soil can grow my plants for me.
“There is incredible research now showing that soil microbiology can more effectively maximise plant growth than synthetic fertilisers. Plants need more than nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) to grow well and to be nutritious.
“Our food today is far less nutrient dense than our food 40 or 50 years ago. So I guess that drives me; I am passionate not just about our environment or food, but about the overlap between these areas.
“Food is the great connector, we all need to eat. How we grow our food can either repair and enhance our communities, environment, climate, ecology, economy and health or just as equally damage it.
“Farmers and food producers all over the country have an enormous responsibility and should be supported so that they can make better choices and decisions that are good for our environment and health, not damaging.”
‘You can make it work’
Being selected as a farming for nature ambassador, she said was an honour.
“Personally, it felt overwhelming being next to some really incredible farms that have been up and running a long time. We were so humbled to be a part of it and look forward to showing that even if you don’t come from a farming background or only have access to a small amount of land, you can make it work.
“We hope people will enjoy seeing how we develop and how we prioritise nature on our farm over the coming years,” Kate said.
“I have more plans than time, money or land. The realistic ones are to continue to grow organically, ‘no dig’ and produce nutrient rich vegetables free from any synthetic chemicals or sprays. I feel we could yet double the amount of produce we grow in our market garden so I would like to improve efficiency for that.
“We would like to become certified organic but as of yet we have not had time to prioritise it. We would like to continue to develop our food forest and orchard. Eventually, we would like to put in an education space that would allow us to facilitate groups that would like to learn about growing and ecology.
“We would like to collaborate with the amazing chefs in the area on interesting new food crops and dishes. Hopefully, we will be able to host supper clubs and other community events and tours in years to come,” said Kate.