Sampling Foods from the World While traveling away, Claire and Thomas O’Connor fell in love with fresh, local, organic produce.
Back in Ireland, they were eager to produce the same quality of food they were eating abroad and proceeded to buy up their farmland.
Neither of them come from an agricultural background, so they were on a steep learning curve, but have progressed rapidly over a decade and now run their own organic farm and shop in Tralee, Koh Keri.
“While we were traveling, we ate fresh, healthy food straight from the farmers markets,” says Claire, who previously worked as a computer programmer.
“When we got home, I started to feel dizzy and sick. I checked my lifestyle and the only conclusion I came to was that the food I was eating now that I came home.
“I no longer eat the same fresh produce I used to.”
After switching her diet to primarily organic products, Claire says she’s starting to feel much better.
“It made us realize we wanted to be able to produce this kind of healthy Irish food for ourselves, so we set out to look for farmland,” she says.
The couple came across a 25-square-meter sheep farm on the Dingle Peninsula and decided to buy it. They also enrolled in An tIonad Glas – The Organic College of Limerick.
“We wanted to learn as much as possible about organic farming, so we immersed ourselves in it for a year and learned a lot,” Claire says.
Although their property was originally a single sheep farm, Claire and Thomas wanted a diversified stock farm, buying pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens.
“We learned a lot during our time in the organic college and through our own research. There is a salient idea of what a farm should be in this country, to be separate aspects rather than a mixed enterprise, when in fact, it is quite the opposite,” says Thomas. .
“We wanted our farm to be a diverse ecosystem with different different aspects that complement each other.”
Claire was also working one day a week at a local organic store in Tralee, Mana Organic, where they brought in their food. A new, unexpected opportunity also arose from this.
“The owner decided to sell, so we decided to buy the store from him,” Claire says. “We knew there would be an opportunity for us to stock the store with our own organic produce once we got down to business, and we felt buying it was the right move.”
During the following period, the couple continued to work on building their farm so that they could supply the store.
“We started with two multi-tunnels and started preparing our first chemical- and pesticide-free vegetable seeds,” Thomas says.
“Our idea from the start was that we wouldn’t use anything with the word ‘death’ on the label. We wanted everything to be completely natural and not harm the soil or the environment.”
Of the 25 acres they bought, they decided to use only a few acres to grow their produce.
“There’s 4ac of Earth that is fairly flat and the rest is sloping. He says.
“We decided to use 4ac to grow our salad and vegetable crops. Then we have another 4ac from the Perma culture where we grow a group of fruit trees and plant protective belts between them.
“Then we have some agroforestry land, and we planted 13 karats of native Irish woods.”
Claire and Thomas focus on growing seasonal, fresh produce and have everything from hot peppers to kale on their farm.
“What we plant depends on the time of year but we have five or six different types of kale, four different types of kale, zucchini, radishes, beetroot, onions, garlic and tomatoes, to name a few,” Claire says.
“We supply it all to our store in town.”
At first, the couple supplied their own meat store, but they have since stopped, while continuing to periodically sell their eggs.
“We were supplying our own ham and meat but it got really tough and eventually we realized it wasn’t worth it,” says Thomas.
“There is a serious lack of support available to organic farmers, and the logistics of organic meat production has made it difficult for us to continue to do so.”
“The lack of local slaughterhouses to meet the needs of small production was a problem for us. Every part of the process must be approved andWe had to travel long distances to bring our animals to the slaughterhouse. This put stress on the animals and because we were making meat on a small scale, it didn’t make economic sense either.”
They now supply organic meat to Manna Organic through local farmer Michael Gleeson.
After experiencing the challenges organic farmers face in Ireland, the couple teamed up with other farmers, growers and land workers to create a member-led organization – living land.
Through the organization, the members advocate for change in the agricultural sector and have established a “Local Food Policy”. The policy proposes measures to finance, support education and improve small farmers’ access to land.
“There is no support for organic farmers in this country. Vegetable farmers are not even recognized as farmers, so getting agricultural support is impossible,” says Thomas.
“Shockingly, only 5% of farmers produce fruits and vegetables, and this is all due to the fact that it is very difficult to make a living from them in this country.
“Pew student is calling for the state to refocus on food sovereignty because we have the ability to produce all of our food here, if we are supported in doing so.”
The O’Connors say they love what they do as much as they did 15 years ago when they bought their farm and shop.
“We enjoy it a lot and the best decision for us was to become farmers and food producers,” Thomas says.
Q&A: “We need low-interest, long-term loans for vegetable growers”
What level of start-up costs have you incurred in setting up your farm business?
It took 60.000-70.000 euros plus the cost of the farm. It’s been 15 years and we’re still using the first multi-channels we bought, so everything has been incremental and we’re always improving.
Was financing easily available from banks?
We’ve always had a problem with bank financing. If you do not have a huge income stream, or large European payments, getting bank financing is very difficult.
There is always money out there, but access to it is the problem. There is a lot of paperwork and regulations involved.
We need low-interest and long-term loans to vegetable growers. If there were more support for farmers like us, we would be up and running faster.
Was there any grant assistance available?
We have applied for grants over the years but have never received them. Again, grants are not designed for small food producers like us, and that’s a problem.
To take advantage of grant aid, you must be able to take advantage of bank financing and producers like us find it very difficult due to the rules and regulations in place.
Was planning permission required?
Our farm came with outbuildings that we have upgraded over the years to accommodate a very small processing facility. If you have to wash a head of lettuce, it counts as processing, so the right facilities need to be in place.
Planning permission is not required for polytunnels, but it is if you apply for a grant to purchase it, which is odd.
Are you required to obtain any licenses or register with any related parties?
If you produce and sell foodstuffs, you must register as a food producer with the Department of Agriculture. We are also registered with the Irish Membership Association and have been a member of the IOA for nine years.
We get regular health and safety checks and organic inspections.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far?
access to knowledge. All traditional agricultural education bodies focus on chemical industrial agriculture and teach only traditional agricultural systems.
We need honest, open and biologically based education for those who want to learn about organic farming and local food production, as the procedures currently in place are not enough.