A micro-farm in County Cork with big ambition...

In part four of KATE RYAN’S series on Cork vegetable farmers, she talks to a couple who run a micro-farm in Ballinhassig
A micro-farm in County Cork with big ambition...

Food for Humans is run by Stephen and Brigid Sinnott, at Ballinhassig.

STEPHEN and Brigid Sinnott run their microfarm, Food for Humans, on 3.5 acres of family land near Ballinhassig.

Between growing beds and tunnels, just over a third of the land is all that is under cultivation, a mixture of field cropping and French Intensive Market Gardening under cover.

Stephen wasn’t always a farmer. A plumber by trade, he became interested in aquaponics – a method of growing food in water without soil - permaculture, and farming.

“I’m very interested in systems and efficiencies, but at the same time I believe nature has a way that things are supposed to work and we as people often just get in the way.”

The ethos at Food for Humans is focused on growing the best tasting food possible, and to achieve that takes an alternative approach to how he grows and understands the relationship between plant, soil, and flavour. Tomatoes are the crop in which Stephen believes he has achieved the perfect balance.

“If you choose the right varieties and don’t pump them with nitrogen, it’s difficult to grow tomatoes that don’t taste well,” Stephen says.

One of the polytunnels at Food for Humans.
One of the polytunnels at Food for Humans.

“A trick to great tasting tomatoes is to not give them a lot of water, causing a concentration of flavours in the fruit, but it costs productivity. So, we’re moving towards giving more water but taking regular leaf samples, sending them to The Netherlands for testing to tell us exactly what the plant needs and giving the plant that.

“Think of flavour in a tomato as a spectrum. You can give not much water and get great flavour, but production is lower. You can give it a bunch of nutrition and water and it will produce much more fruit, but the flavour will be less. Or you can give it fertility, water, and pay attention to micronutrients and enzyme co-factors the plant needs to produce these flavour compounds and break through the other side to achieve great productivity and great flavour.”

This sounds less like the bucolic and pastoral image of farming we might imagine when it comes to growing food. But of course, farming – agriculture - is a science and one where, arguably, knowledge had been relinquished wholesale in exchange for simplified farm inputs, such as synthetically derived petrochemicals, for fertilisation.

“Something that is very in vogue with market gardens is No Dig and lashing on a tonne of compost. You’ll get decent crops, and it’s an easy system because it keeps down weeds, but you’ll never get truly exceptional crops because its inherent that nutrient content [in the soil] is very imbalanced.

“What we prefer to do is understand all the nuances, understand that soil is also made up of nitrogen, iron, magnesium, and manganese, and once you know what a plant needs at any one time, you know what to apply at each stage in the plant.

“It’s the way to go for high yield and great flavour – and the one thing that we are all about is great flavour; that’s what we’re known for.”

An important part of growing any food is healthy soil. This is the starting point for No Dig, to build up soil by consistently composting and achieving a balance between nutrient input and extraction. At minimum, growing crops should never take more from the soil than it needs, and at best returns more nutrition. However, Stephen believes the ability to do this starts with having healthy plants first.

A lot of the work at the farm in Ballinhassig is done by hand.
A lot of the work at the farm in Ballinhassig is done by hand.

“Growing soil is a little bit incidental to us. A lot of market gardeners put a lot of effort into growing cover crops, which are great, but not if it comes at the expense of productivity. Everything needs to be balanced against everything else. Our soil is improving all the time, but we don’t put a lot of land aside for cover crops and we also don’t use a lot of compost.

“In order to grow soil, what you actually have to grow is a very healthy crop. The input into the soil of energy all comes from the sun through a plant. What’s special about a cover crop? It’s just a crop, you can achieve the same thing with a really healthy crop of tomatoes, or kale, by making sure the plant is working efficiently, which all comes back to sap testing and making sure that is has every little micronutrient that it needs when it needs it.”

The use of polytunnels and greenhouses at Food for Humans is based on a method known as French Intensive Market Gardening.

“French Intensive is the root of intensive market gardening and began in the late 1800s around Paris, utilising horse manure for planting crops very densely under glass to push forward and extend the seasons. That’s what we’re doing here with polytunnels, tight spacings, and rapid rotations.”

Not all crops are grown under cover.

“We’re field cropping as well; mostly onions, carrots, beetroot, leeks, garlic, winter squash, and some winter potatoes. All the fruiting crops, tomatoes, strawberries, our salad leaves and winter greens, are grown in our tunnels.

“We’re growing virtually year-round, although winter production is always slower. But we’re working on increasing winter production and growing more storage crops so I can bring down the summer workload.”

Despite its diminutive size, there is still appetite for experimenting with new things. A 2021 experiment growing a small-sized melon proved popular and has been sketched into this season’s cropping plan.

“They’re about the size of a softball and they are incredible. People went nuts for them last year, I’ve never seen a reaction like it! I knew they would be popular; I just didn’t know if we could do them productively enough. We grow them in the tunnel, and we grow them up a string rather than along the ground.”

Some of the gorgeous bounty at the farm.
Some of the gorgeous bounty at the farm.

I asked Stephen if he feels that small and micro farms like his are the way forward for horticulture in Ireland?

“A lot of people are down on bigger vegetable farms but I’m not. In the main they do a great job, they’re producing food that most people can afford, people aren’t going hungry.

“There needs to be a mixture of both small and large farms. The reality is that small growing like I’m doing, products are inherently more expensive. Most things are hand labour, we don’t have mechanical efficiencies, we’re not able to fertilise veg on a big scale because we have a couple of beds here and a couple over there. There are inherent labour increases in that.

“It would be fine if everyone was on a higher income and could afford that, but the reality is it’s just not the case. So, I’m very glad that there are bigger farms with bigger efficiencies so, even if you’re on quite limited means in Ireland, you can go into a shop and buy wholefood ingredients to cook a decent meal at a low cost, and I’m very grateful for that.

The polytunnel at Food for Humans, at Ballinhassig. The use of polytunnels is based on a method known as French Intensive Market Gardening.
The polytunnel at Food for Humans, at Ballinhassig. The use of polytunnels is based on a method known as French Intensive Market Gardening.

“I think a lot of work needs to be done on big farms with regenerative agriculture, reducing and eliminating spraying toxic things – I wouldn’t like to see that being sprayed on anything. But it’s driven by the market, and as long as people are buying very cheap things, you’re building for the way in which production will happen.

“It would be nice if everyone was educated about where their food comes from and the ramifications around that, but the average person has a million things going on in their life and they just don’t have time or bandwidth to dedicate to something like that.

“Trying to change people is a much more difficult road to go than for farmers to not have to handle potentially poisonous chemicals and improve their soil. So, I think the way to improve it would be to show growers this is how we can grow without spraying chemicals, improve the soil and keep our waterways clean.”

Food for Humans are at Kinsale and Bandon farmers’ markets every week. They also supply produce for Neighbourfood’s operating in Cork City, Douglas, Cuskinny, Passage West, Kinsale and Ballincollig. Find them on local menus and some independent health food shops also.

Follow on Instagram: @food.for.humans

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