Organic farming: Fresh ideas in a green market

Kenneth Keavey runs the fresh farm and vegetable box delivery business Green Earth Organics with his wife Jenny. Near Galway city, Green Earth Organics has been delivering in the western county and on the east coast since 2006. Oliver Moore chats to Kenneth about his business.

Your background doesn’t chime with the cliched image people may have of an organic farmer.

I studied chemistry in Galway, and have a PhD from Cambridge. I worked in biotech after that.

In fact, some of my work involved developing new types of herbicides. I was a medicinal chemist by trade, and have a fairly decent understanding of what these things do. Seeing they are toxic, spraying them on our food is ridiculous. I didn’t want to be involved in chemicals anymore, I wanted to do something sustainable with my family’s land, so we moved back to Ireland. In 2004 we put the land into the certification system.

Tell me about the farm and business.

The farm is 25 acres, with another 18 rented. There are 34 people employed in total by us, including six on the farm. We have an office in Galway and Dublin, and our own two vans in Dublin.

Do you buy in from other Irish growers?

We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. We’ve stopped growing some things — we get potatoes and apples from good growers in Armagh and Waterford respectively. We’re limited in size, so potatoes on our scale — 70-plus tonnes a year — would need more land and specialised machinery. With the wet here in the west, we buy in onions and some of our carrots too from other growers in Ireland.

What do you think about mainstream retail?

Loss leading within the supermarkets makes it very difficult to operate in this sector. To produce at the price vegetables are sold at simply isn’t possible.

Growers have pressure put on them, whatever about the spin. What will you do with the produce if the main buyer tells you to drop your price by 20%?

And for imported veg, if you look at the labour conditions in places like Spain and Sicily — people need to be made aware of this.

You are a vegan yourself, Kenneth. How does this impact on the farm?

We’re not using animal manure on the farm this year, so we buy in a cereal-based organic fertiliser from the UK. I can’t see how we’d be self-sufficient in nutrients at our scale.

Other years we’ve used compost chicken manure, but we’re going to try to avoid this from now on. Under-sowing green manure in all our brassicas is working well. We probably need to get the green manure working better — the chicken manure worked really well.

I visited Iain Tolhurst’s set-up in England — he uses a lot of wood chip compost. It would be difficult on our scale to do this.

What keeps your awake at night?

For me, it has always been climate change as a priority. If we look at the last nine months alone. We had a hurricane in November, lots of snow in March — both shut the farm for the first time in 12 years. Then no rain for six weeks — in the west of Ireland.

Those were three massive climate disasters. Crops are smaller, yields are down — the improved soil structure in organic helps — but still... I’m seen as a harbinger of doom, but things are getting urgent. We have an obligation, especially if we know, to act. Shop elsewhere, go to your TD.

The plastic thing has been huge — it’s interesting to see that politicians and industry take note — it just shows what can happen. But also, in a way, plastic is deflecting from climate change.

You can feel empowered with plastic avoidance. There is very little talk about climate change in the media.

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