Surfing farmers in Ireland

| 31st October 2019
Moy Hill Farm
Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham
Professional surfers have established a regenerative, cooperative agriculture project in Ireland.

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Located on a hilltop overlooking the Irish west coast lies Moy Hill Farm, a cooperative that produces organic food for over a hundred families each week.

Moy Hill's yearly revenue is close to 100,000 euros, but getting there has been a steep uphill - literally and figuratively. It all started with a good surf wave on the other side of the mountain.

Looking north from the farm, a mountain can be spotted in the distance. It is the world-famous Cliffs of Moher, a Mecca for surfers. It was here that the professional surfers Mitch, Matt and Fergal, together with Fergal's wife Sally, decided buy some land five years ago.

The vision was to create a place where people can learn about agriculture while also providing people in the area with good food.

Community farm 

Fergal Smith grew up on an organic farm and at an early age learned that life is hard work. He began dreaming of leaving the farm to become a professional surfer, riding the best waves of the world.

Fergal succeeded – he got a sponsorship with a big surfer brand and flew around the world surfing for several years. But one day after injuring his knee on a coral reef in Tahiti, he heard on the news about the nuclear disaster in Japan and it sparked an epiphany that would change his life forever.

Fergal suddenly realized that he did not want to live the surfer dream. He wanted to go back to his country and do something that was real, something that made a real difference for people. He figured he would use the gift he had been given by his parents: the know-how to grow healthy food while at the same improving the quality of the soil. Like this, he would inspire and teach others what he had learned and provide his local community with food.

But Fergal had no desire to take over his parents' farm. It was too far from the sea and the people.

Fergal said: "To become lonely and isolated is the typical farmer’s fate, and the suicide statistics among farmers is very high. I wanted to create a community - a community farm"

Planting projects 

Together with friends and co-surfers Mitch Corbett and Matt Smith, and his wife Sally, Fergal began with a small plot of a few thousand square meters in the valley. They borrowed the land from a local Irish farmer and soon began reaping the fruits and quickly expanded the farm to include pigs and tree planting projects. 

It wouldn't feed the whole world but it was a start. And it was near the sea. The income from their surfing careers allowed them to work the farm without the pressure of making a profit straight away.

They founded a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a cooperative where customers pay in advance to take part in the harvest every week. The CSA model, or cooperative agriculture, is a way of self-organizing food distribution, breaking off from long retail chains and putting sellers and buyers in more direct relation to each other.

Soon however, the owner wanted the land back. So what next? They had already established a good production and a collaboration with the local community so it would be a shame to stop now. They discovered that another piece of land was for sale on the hilltop and decided to buy it.

The land was boggy, almost marsh-like, but with much regenerative work and soil improvement methods, they converted the hill into highly fertile farmland.

Regenerative work

The word ecological has become more of a brand than a technology. Meanwhile, it is more important than ever to actually rebuild soils. 

Fergal explained: "we use regenerative cultivation methods, like preparing the soil with livestock grazing that speed up the process of soil improvement naturally. And we don't use tractors."

Another example of Moy Hill’s regenerative farming is that, when harvested, the roots of beans and sugar peas are left in the ground (as opposed to pulling out the whole plants with roots and all) as they bind vital nitrogen in the soil.

In 2018 another 24 hectares of land was for sale on the hilltop. Apparently, three different forestry companies were trying to outbid each other to buy the plot. The plan was to plant spruce, a type of monoculture that Fergal calls “an ecological desert”, a place where nothing else likes to grow. He also points put that the spruce is definitely not a native plant.

Moy Hill then went around to the neighbors to check if anyone was interested in buying the plot. But no one could afford it. At the same time, no one wanted to be neighbor with a spruce plantation.

Financing 

Fergal shakes his head at the memory: "We didn't know how to do it, but we called the real estate agent and told him we want the land - we would outbid the forestry companies. Then we were in a hurry. 

"The land landed at 300,000 euros and I think we had about 3000 euros in the bank at the time."

With a loan of 100,000 euros from an ethical bank and private loans from friends and family, the group managed to get the money and buy the land. After selling three parcels to neighbors and a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised almost 60,000 euros, they have now managed to pay off the bank loan and only the private loans remain.

Today, Moy Hill is divided into two pieces of land, the bottom farm down in the valley and the top farm up on the hill - all and all almost 26 hectares. On top of the hill you find a row of large polytunnels, cultivation beds and an orchard, as well as the kitchen, storage rooms, shower, toilet and communal areas.

The wind is inexorable and it was raining every single day of August. Still, the farm manages to grow about eighty varieties of vegetables, from fennel, celery, broccoli, beetroot, onion, pumpkin, garlic, dill, parsley, thyme and coriander to tomatoes, passion fruit, sage, figs and all kinds of cabbage.

Harsh weather

There is currently closer to twenty people living on and around the farm in camper vans and semi-permanent tents. Others rent houses further down the valley. The working day is just about to end and some are going down to swim in the nearby lake. Others grab the chance to go surfing in the unusually sunny weather.

Fergal explained: "This is primarily a working farm. We do not have much planned activities in the evening, says Matt, one of the farm owners."

Many would say that Western Ireland is one of the most difficult places to grow food due to the rain, harsh winters and short summers. But Matt claims it is actually one of the world's best sites for cultivation.

Fergal continued: "We have both sun and rain. In Spain and Southern France they have a lot of sun, but also having this much rain is unusual."

The crops are sold in markets and so-called “box schemes”, were customers subscribe to boxes of vegetables from the farm which they receive every week during the summer months. This way, the customer has a constant access to fresh produce while the farmers have a secured income.

Currently, hundred families or so subscribe to the boxes. The farm is also part of Ireland's first REKO-circle, an increasingly popular Finnish concept where growers and buyers skip the middleman and trade directly with each other at specific delivery points.

Meaningful work

So far, everyone working on the farm is doing so on a voluntary basis, but hopes are that in the future, their work will give a good pay. But first, the loans must be paid.

Matt said: "We earn about 100,000 euros a year on our agricultural production. But until we have paid for the land, none of what we make is a profit. Right now I have a salary of about one euro an hour, he says, smiling with a frown. 

"What do I get out of it? That’s a good question. But it is meaningful work. And when we have paid off the loans, we hope that it will be able to provide a good salary as well."

Recently, Fergal, Sally, Mitch and Matt decided to hand over major decision-making to a voluntary advisory board. Previously, all decisions were made on the basis of consensus, but in the end there were too many decisions.

Matt continued: "When there is no spiritual community it becomes more difficult to make decisions because there is never a clear path forward, everyone's opinions weigh just as heavily. So instead of breaking up, we simply chose to pass the decisions on to others.

Elections

On Tuesdays, volunteers come and work in the farm, usually a dozen extra hands or so who, for their work get lunch and a box of fresh veggies to take home. The day begins with a yoga class for those who want. Porridge and tea is served outside the kitchen at nine. Then the work begins.

It is difficult to get a chance to chat with the owners, but while planting fennel, Fergal reveals that he ran for the Irish election a few years ago. Why? Because there was no other candidate for the green party in their area.

Fergal said: "I got to raise some issues and give voice to many people, but I am glad I wasn’t elected in the end. Then I would have been in Dublin now and not here. It wouldn’t suit me. Although some say that the most powerful political act you can do is grow your own food, he adds with afterthought."

Patrick, a volunteer who moved to the area with his wife after they retired, explains that the winters are tough. He is shovelling manure into the bed were some seedlings are to be planted.

Fergal interjects: "On the contrary!". He is now planting pak choi: "In wintertime you can take it easy, sleep in. In the summers we work at least seventy hours a week, seven days a week. In winter there is less to do. It's great."

Producing energy 

For their own consumption, they have enough vegetables to manage all year round, but the main growing season is four months a year.

The rainwater on the top farm is collected and used for irrigation as well as washing dishes and clothes. If there is not enough rain, they pump water from the small lake nearby.

All the electricity comes from sun and wind but they are about to connect the lower part of the farm to the electricity grid. The growing need of hot water, hot planting beds and certain tools exceeds their ability to produce energy.

Moy Hill also runs a charity called HomeTree, where they plant trees for people or companies that buys their service. So far they have planted 14,000 trees, all native varieties such as oak, hazel and birch and over three hundred apple trees.

Fergal said: "Last summer we were thirty-five people living here. It was too many. But of course, the idea from the start was that people could come here to be inspired and learn. I’m sure that If we were six experienced farmers in the farm we could probably manage. But it would probably be less fun too.

"It is the diversity of people passing here that makes the place so interesting. And ultimately, it’s all about community and doing it together."

This Author 

Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham is a journalist and ecologist from Sweden currently living in Portugal. 

Image: Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham.

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