Growing veg of a really high standard... and helping nature as we go

In part three of our series on Ireland’s vegetable growers, KATE RYAN talks to two small horticulture enterprises in Cork - Gort na Nain near Nohoval and Gortnacrusha, near Ballinspittle
Growing veg of a really high standard... and helping nature as we go

Ultan Walsh and Lucy Stewart, Gort na Nain Farm, Nohoval.

CORK is peppered with small horticulture enterprises growing in ways that proactively increase the ‘aliveness’ of their land, from beneficial microbial activity in the soil, to the insect, bird and wildlife that work in unison with growing practices to increase overall biodiversity.

I went to meet two such growers in Cork to find out how they grow, what they grow, and why.

Ultan Walsh and Lucy Stewart, run Gort na Nain Farm in Nohoval - a nine-acre farm with views overlooking Newfoundland Bay.

“It means Field of the Birds,” explains Ultan. “I guess it was an aspiration because, when we first bought the farm, there was nothing here, only barley stubble.”

Birds of all kinds have since made the farm their home, including, much to Ultan’s delight, jays – one of Ireland’s most elusive wild birds.

Of the nine acres, one is their homestead, another is a mix of native woodland planted ten years ago, and another is a 15-year-old orchard growing a mix of eating, cooking and cider apples, and plums.

Each acre of the farm is segmented, boundary hedgerows were reinstated and thickly planted with ash, hawthorn, fuchsia, and willow, cut and harvested by a local group of crafters who use it to make beautiful things.

The purpose of hedgerows is at least three-fold: providing habitat for all manner of wildlife, they act as carbon sinks, increasing with each new year of growth, and provide shelter from harsh weather conditions.

Ultan Walsh, vegetable grower, harvesting asparagus on the farm at Nohoval, Co. Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Ultan Walsh, vegetable grower, harvesting asparagus on the farm at Nohoval, Co. Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

The remaining seven acres are for cultivation of crops, either under cover in their acre of polytunnels or as field-grown crops. Not every field is utilised at any one time; crop rotation is an important part of healthy soil management.

Ultan’s background is as a microbiologist and Lucy’s as a librarian at Cork City Library. Gardening and growing crops has been part of their life since moving to Cork in 1997. Their first smallholding in Minane Bridge kept them self-sufficient in vegetables for two years before purchasing land at Gort na Nain.

“We use a combination of practices here; we’re practical growers, halfway between traditional and commercial growing. We figure out what the land needs and cultivate it in a way that suits it,” says Ultan.

Growing commercially for 20 years, Gort na Nain’s first, and arguably most loyal, customer is Denis Cotter, proprietor of Paradiso, Cork city’s pioneering vegetarian restaurant. It’s a relationship built on one vegetable in particular – asparagus.

“Denis asked me what I was doing. I told him I was growing asparagus. He asked me why, and I said because it’s my favourite vegetable. He said it was his too, and he became my first customer.”

It’s a partnership that has flourished, and in 2021 was recognised at the World Restaurant Awards with the Big Plate ‘Collaboration of the Year’ award.

Ultan and Lucy still grow primarily for Paradiso, with any excess the restaurant simply cannot take making their way to other customers and outlets, such as their on-site farm shop.

I ask if its important to them to find a home for everything grown from the 50 different crops they grow.

“No!” Ultan says unequivocally. Why? “It just simply gets ploughed back into the soil to feed it.”

At a time when consumers are asked to not waste food, it’s easy to forget that not every vegetable makes it out of the farm. Whether this is considered waste very much depends on the ethos of the farm, and at Gort na Nain unsold vegetables are simply compost waiting to happen. “Our ethos is to grow vegetables to a really high standard but in a way that actively provides habitat for wildlife,” says Ultan.

Most of what they grow is selected based on what they like to eat and choose to engage with customers who share a similar ethical outlook. Growing mooli (also known as daikon radish) to order for My Goodness provides another ethical food company with an essential, authentic, Irish-grown ingredient for making kimchi, for example.

Ultan has been growing for over two decades now, there is an acknowledgment by him that there are only a few more intense growing seasons left before both he and Lucy will want to slow down a little; maybe go on a holiday, something they haven’t done since buying the farm.

But if Ireland is to make headwind into vegetable self-sufficiency rather than relying on imports, we need more people like Ultan and Lucy – not less. I ask what are the barriers to new horticulturalists?

“Land,” he says. “It’s the biggest outlay. I see plenty of horticulture students who come here for work experience, and they are really promising. But if they don’t already have access to land your heart sinks because you know they’re going to end up in some unrelated job that they don’t like just so they can earn a living.

“There needs to be a scheme for young growers to buy land, but enough land so they can also live there too – that’s really important – and there needs to be more incentive for farmers to convert grassland into producing high value crops,” says Ultan.

But there’s more to it even than that, explains Lucy: “It’s going to be more and more important to produce more plant-based proteins. There is an undeniable trend towards less meat consumption, but there needs to be more capacity for more growers.

“Growers tend to think in terms of years – there’s always next year, but time goes by quickly,” says Ultan.

“There’s something beautiful about watching things grow and get established,” he says.

“Don’t ever lose that,” says Lucy, “if we ever do, we know it will time for us to stop.”

The farmshop at Gort na Nain farm is open Thursday – Sunday from 9am.

Follow on Instagram @gort_na_nain

Ciara O’Flynn and Rob Ó Foghlú of Gortnacrusha Biodiversity Farm.
Ciara O’Flynn and Rob Ó Foghlú of Gortnacrusha Biodiversity Farm.

Gortnacrusha Biodiversity Farm

As its name suggests, the 12.5 acres at Gortnacrusha Biodiversity Farm produces more than just vegetables. It also stewards soil, sequesters carbon, and grows wildlife and habitats.

Ciara O’Flynn and Rob Ó Foghlú purchased the land in 2017, and 2022 will represent only their second growing season as a commercial producer. In those five years, Ciara and Rob have worked hard to restore, rewild, and replant much of the land which sits on an exposed slope with views out towards The Old Head of Kinsale a kilometre outside Ballinspittle.

“Eight acres are planted with trees and reserved for rewilding,” says Ciara.

“The rest is used for commercial growing, and we have half an acre under tunnel.”

Five thousand trees, orchards and hedgerows have been planted, helping to create new habitats, but also act as a vital carbon sink. Everything serves multiple purposes, there’s no room for plant egos here.

“Our approach to farming is regenerative agriculture,” explains Ciara.

“We put a huge emphasis on soil health. Soil is a carbon sequester, for example, after our tomato harvest finishes, we laid down the plants to rot into the soil and created a tea treatment from the old plants too. All of that went back into the soil to build life, and as a result the food we produce here tastes amazing!”

Ciara and Rob speak of their worry at the state of the world, an eco-grief they feel acutely.

“We feel very sad about the way land is treated. We look to the future, the kind of world my child is growing up in, and that’s a huge part of the motivation to do what we do.

“Current agricultural policies are not up to speed with what is happening in the ground – they’re too harsh and not sustainable.”

As well as trees and rewilding, there is a pristine meadow that has never been ploughed.

“Meadows are one of the most threatened habitats in Ireland. Our meadow has orchids, and in May and June is gorgeous to look at. We think it might be the last piece of traditional meadow in this area. It takes huge effort to preserve but worth it for a habitat this important.”

There are three distinct orchards Ciara and Rob have planted. A traditional apple orchard which includes damson trees, Ireland’s native wild plum. Appealing to the needs and wants of local chefs, they have also planted a Cob Nut and a White Truffle orchard.

“The Cob Nut orchard is because very few nuts are cultivated in Ireland,” Ciara explains.

The demand for nut-based alternative foods, such as milk and cheese, as well as other culinary uses and a delicious, native food – means there is a ready market for locally produced nuts.

Meanwhile, the intriguing sounding White Truffle orchard is a longer-term project.

“We have inoculated trees with white truffle spores, and, if it works, it’ll take eight years to harvest truffles from the orchard.”

It took time and effort to prepare the ground building a perfect environment for truffles to thrive.

“Truffles create biodiversity below the ground as well as above. I guess if it fails, we’ll have created a very expensive woodland,” Rob says with a wry smile.

Rob and Ciara are building different habitats at Gortnacrusha - woodland, orchards, meadows, hedgerows – to support an intensive commercial market garden that produces crops year-round.

“In the tunnels, we grow leeks, kale, winter greens, spinach, pak choi and chard. Tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, peppers, herbs, cucumbers, and salads. Our outdoor crops are broad beans, kale, squash, courgettes, potatoes… I’m probably forgetting a few!” says Ciara.

“In order for a small farm like ours to be viable, it’s important to be based near a ready market. We have chefs from restaurants in Kinsale who choose to source from a business like ours: St Francis Provisions, The Speckled Door, OHK Café, and The Bulman. We also work with Leafling Mercantile in Ballinspittle, My Goodness in the city, and platforms like Farmsy.ie and Cottage Garden Kinsale to help distribute our produce a bit further afield.”

“We like working with people who share the same ethos as us; they’re able to explain why their customers should be eating our food – they’re our mouthpieces.”

Ciara and Rob acknowledge that to farm in the way they do takes extra effort, but there is a firm belief that they can be a showcase for others.

“Some of things and ways we do things can be incorporated into all farms,” says Ciara.

“Our farm is commercially viable – we earn a modest income from it, but mainly we want to be a case study for other local farmers who are interested in what we’re doing.”

Once upon a time, a third of household income went on food, but today it’s 10%, even less. Because of the way Ciara and Rob farm, their food is inherently more nutritious but also more expensive than a similar product available in some supermarkets, for example.

But for them it’s about the triple bottom line of sustainability: social, environmental, and financial.

At Gortnacrusha Biodiversity Farm, they are creating a food system in equilibrium and, over time, will increasingly deliver across all three pillars, too.

Follow on Instagram @gortnacrushabiodiversityfarm

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