Community supported agriculture might be the future of farming, writes Joyce Fegan
IN SEPTEMBER 2014, three surfers got together to turn half an acre of west Clare land into a community farm. Now, less than four years later, they have raised over €300,000, bought 60 acres of land, and are feeding 50 families a week.
This is what is known as community-supported agriculture (CSA) and is thought to be the future of sustainable food production.
It is not your typical farm: An entire community has sprung up around it which includes early-morning yoga, cook-outs, and surfing.
“Our goal is to feed 150 families year-round, supporting four or five jobs — that’s our maximum capacity. We want to create a replicable model that works. So the idea is that there can be a community farm in every county in Ireland, if not three, four, or five of them,” explains founder Fergal Smith.
Not only has 30-year-old Smith dedicated the last four years of his life to turning bogland into farmable soil, he is also a professional surfer and father to a three-year-old and a nine-month-old.
Originally from Mayo, he grew up on an organic vegetable farm and knew he wanted to work in farming eventually himself.
Having caught the surfing bug at age seven, and moving to Clare after school to dedicate himself to the sport, it wasn’t until he was 26 that he decided to follow up on his earlier ambition.
“In September 2014, I started a community garden at Moy Hill, just outside of Lahinch, with Mitch Corbett and Matt Smith.
“We initially borrowed half an acre of land which
we ended up buying and this became the community garden. So it started out as an ideas garden where we have an orchard, a tree nursery, a herb garden, and an underground glasshouse.
“Every Friday then, from April to Halloween, we would have a cook-up for the locals at 6pm. Everything would be cooked from the garden.
“Then, from this, we went on and borrowed an acre of land. This was really good land but after two years our landlord wanted his land back.”
This change coincided with 17 acres of nearby land going up for sale in 2016. When neighbours of the land encouraged the three friends to buy it, they decided to go for it, putting all their own money into it.
Only two of the 17 acres have been used to grow food on as most of it is “semi-bog”. However, they have planted lots of trees.
Smith says: “In the first year, we didn’t sell the vegetables we grew. We left them on a table and asked people to make a donation. Something very interesting happened. In asking people to donate, they had to reflect on how much they thought this locally grown food was worth and they were paying more than they’d pay for it in the supermarket.”
They started out with 20 paying members and selling them boxes weekly from June to October. As they got more used to the land and farming it, they were able to provide food right up until early December.
They now have 50 members, who either receive a small box (€15) or a big box (€30) of vegetables every week.
In it, depending on the season, you will find potatoes, onions, chard, kale, beetroot, carrots, salad, cucumber, courgette, turnip, leek, celeriac, fennel bulbs, tomatoes, peppers, peas, French beans, and herbs. “We also pick one vegetable a week and our chef Brian gives people information about it on a little note in their box. So he’ll go into detail about what you can do with the vegetable,” says Smith.
ASIDE from chef Brian, who lives on the farm, and Fergal and Matt Smith, and Mitch Corbett, the entire enterprise is maintained by 15 to 30 volunteers who come every Tuesday to work the farm. In the summer months, volunteers will camp on the land and stay for longer.
A typical day for the workers starts out with a yoga session at 8am followed by breakfast at 9am, then a morning of work, a good lunch, more work, and then at 5pm they leave for the night with a bag of vegetables.
While the lifestyle may sound idyllic, Smith is very serious about turning it into a working farm that feeds people all year-round and supports jobs.
“What we are working on is a solution and the faster we make this work the faster more people can replicate what we are doing. We need to get to the point where the farm is feeding the local community.
“At the moment in Ireland 70% of our food is imported — this was not the case 50 years ago. The industrial model of food production is eroding our soil and this cannot continue. We cannot go on like this forever. It is not sustainable, but there are solutions.
“That’s why we work so tirelessly and don’t yet take a wage from the farm. We are in the process of creating that solution and there is nobody against this idea. There are already nine CSAs in Ireland and we have had lots of farmers around the country get in contact with us saying they want to do it too.”
In order to achieve that scale they needed a bigger farm and money.
Last year, 60 acres of land went up for sale and the three friends knew they did not have the money to buy it.
The asking price was €312,000.
Then they heard it was being sold for forestry and this gave them the “kick in the behind” they needed to try and make it work.
“We rang around friends and family and told them what we wanted to do and we asked them would they front us money as a loan. We ended up raising €200,000 in the space of a few weeks,” says Smith.
Still short a third of the price and with a bid already made, they turned to a special Irish bank, Clann Credo, for the rest.
Clann Credo is a social investment fund founded in 1996 by Sr Magdalen Fogarty and the Presentation Sisters. Its sole goal is to make capital available to community-focused enterprises such as Moy Hill farm.
Thanks to a clever crowd-funding project, which involved people making donations in turn for rewards, they have already raised €100,000 and the nuns have been repaid their loan.
One eager donor donated €10,000 and will have a field named after him on the new 60-acre farm.
For Fergal Smith, this is a lifelong endeavour that he knows for sure will work.
“It’s head down and we will get this to function,” he says.
“The thing for me is we all know the problems in the world and we all know there are solutions, but let’s focus on the solutions.
“The moment you do, you get wrapped up in the solution and that’s all you can think about.”