Valerie O’Connor goes back to visit her foodie alma mater the Organic College, or An tIonad Glas at Dromcollogher — deep in dairy farming Co Limerick.
Everyone has their recession stories, indeed many are still having them, and here’s one of mine.
Circa 2008 I decided to move out of Dublin and back to Limerick, having been priced out of the rental market and without secondary school places for my growing kids.
Limerick was dandy for a while until a huge closure made the proverbial backside fall out of everything — the local economy was devastated with far-reaching effects.
Suddenly there was zero work. The wheels stopped turning and I, like many, found myself staring into a long tunnel with no prospect of an end in sight.
To make things more fun, I developed a mysterious auto-immune condition that wiped me out for months and I found the only thing I could do, where I felt okay, was being outside in my yard, potting plants and feeling the wind on my face.
I paid attention; this little bit of nature was saving me.
With no paid work on the horizon I looked at my options, going back to college was one, as grants were available for certain courses.
My Mum pointed out my greenfingers and how I seemed to enjoy food growing and my dreams of food writing also encouraged me to gain ‘an area of expertise’.
I looked online for courses in food growing and was delighted to find that a two-year diploma in organic horticulture was running in Limerick.
I got my interview and within a few weeks I was offered a place at the Organic College aka An t’Ionad Glas, in Drumcollogher, deep in dairy farming Co Limerick.
Going back to college in your thirties is a different thing, mainly you’re there because you made that choice for yourself.
This time I didn’t just have to drag myself out of bed like the art student I once was, now I had to get my two soldiers up and fed and out the door before me, but they were then aged nine and eleven and well able to make their own lunches.
Our head teacher Jim MacNamara was a constant voice in the ways of life and compassion — for humans as well as plants, and we all enjoyed his classes.
He said one thing that sticks with me “When we enter into adult education, we have an opportunity to let the quieter voice be heard”.
As someone who never had trouble speaking my mind, I took this as a chance to be a bit quieter.
The subjects we covered ranged from organic crop production, soil science, fruit and vegetable production, beekeeping (which was my favourite), plant identification, plant protection, plant science, permaculture design and then a module in communications to cover the part where we might go out and look for jobs in the proverbial field.
We also did woodwork, something I want to do more of, as how can you make raised beds or cool recycled container projects if you can’t use a saw or a hammer?
Students also learned the commercial side of organics and many are there now with a view to starting businesses or market stalls.
The college has a thriving shop and sells packaged veg and fruit every week in the village.
Field trips to organic growers and eco villages were some of the best days and workshops with experts in willow fence-making and honey-extraction were things I would never have had access to otherwise.
Going to college to plant seeds in seed trays seemed a bit daft to me at first — but of course, we did a lot more than that. Sitting in a classroom like secondary school kids and doing botany was very interesting.
There’s a lot to know when it comes to growing food. I don’t call this stuff gardening, because gardening suggests tending the rose bushes — this is about knowing how to grow your own food for your own health and pocket, and also for the future sustainability of the country and the planet.
This was the bit that appealed to me the most, and I became an annoying guerilla gardener trying to persuade all my friends and family to have raised beds amongst the gladioli.
Quickly, my own house had seed trays everywhere and I enjoyed resurrecting skills of drawing cute diagrams of compost heaps and crop rotation as well filming bees, up close and personal.
Why would you go to organic college? So many reasons.
The first one I can think of is that life is so busy, competitive and consumer-driven that taking a year or two to study here is giving yourself a breather.
Getting your hands in the soil is therapeutic, it can lift your spirits and is known to benefit people with mental illness, or just going through hard times.
It can suit a lot of different people — from someone who just wants to get their hands dirty and learn how to grow food, to students who are already farmers and looking into organics, to people with ideas for small food businesses.
Some alumni have gone on to set up food-related businesses — from eco-tourism to organic cosmetics, jobs in garden management, teaching, growing and supplying organic crops, gardening therapy and food writing.
Taking two years to study at An t’Ionad Glas is one of the best things I’ve done for myself, though I may not have seen it at the time.
Knowing about trees and plants brings your environment to life and makes you appreciate nature and the effort it takes to grow food. I’ve made some of my best friendships too.
Check out www.organiccollege.com for their list of QQI certified courses starting in September 2016.
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