At the end of July 2005 my boyfriend Chris Wood ran downstairs and proclaimed that he wanted to be a farmer. Having just finished reading “The little Earth Book” by James Bruges he had decided that growing food naturally and locally was a priority and that he for one wanted to learn how to do it. For the previous twelve years he had lived in Dublin without access to a garden or a particular inclination to use one, but when he moved to the west something began to awaken. Earlier in the year, watching as I brought on some lettuce and tomato seeds in our small suburban garden something stirred, waited quietly and then manifested as a move that would change his life.
After the initial excitement of his revelation had died down an obvious question came up. How exactly does one go about learning the skills of a farmer? Luckily, the previous year I had met Jim Cronin at the Killaloe Farmers’ Market and knew that he did not use artificial chemicals to produce the vegetables he sold there every Sunday. So, off we trundled in order to see if he could offer any advice. It turned out that he was having an open day on his small holding in Bridgetown, Co. Clare the following day and that we were welcome to call up and have a look round. Apart from the amazing cakes that were being freely offered at the tables which had been set up in the sun there was the chance to wander around the farm and to see what was involved in the process of growing vegetables, salads and herbs. While there Chris decided to ask Jim if he ever needed volunteers on the farm. The answer was that he did and that Chris could start coming out the following Friday. Not having access to a car Chris cycled the twenty mile round trip from to the farm and so began his farming career
Hail, rain or shine he made the journey on his bicycle once a week in the winter, spring and autumn and twice a week in the summer. It seemed that he had found the right place for fulfilling his new found need to learn how to grow excellent quality vegetables himself and therefore prevent the need to have a dinner that had travelled up to 40,000 miles in order to reach his plate. As Chris constantly expanded the range of food on the go in our own garden every week he also received a full compliment of the food that was in season at the farm. During our first winter of eating only seasonal vegetables it was at first a struggle to think of ways to use the root vegetables that seemed to just keep coming, but then the courgettes started to come in late spring, the best potatoes we had ever tasted soon followed, peppers that had a flavour like I had never encountered began to appear in the bag that Chris carried home on his bike. Different salads crept in and one week in august there was great excitement as sweet corn was hastily plunged into boiling water on arrival through the door, then the tomatoes came, and the best novelty of all were the pumpkins.
Every season is now filled with expectation. What will be in the bag this week? Will there be more beetroot or will this week be the first week of the leeks? When will the first baby carrots arrive? And when will the tomatoes stop coming? Having enough vegetables every week we have no need to go the super market for more. All that is required is some imagination and a bit of patience.
In order to farm sustainably both imagination and patience appear to be extremely important and the fourteen acre small holding that Jim Cronin runs is full of the evidence of what can be achieved when one works with these in mind all the time. Gradually steering his farm towards a natural vibrancy Jim encourages life of all sorts. He absorbs whatever it has to offer, decides what might be still missing and gradually works to fill the gap.
Chief among the life that congregates on the land around Jim’s house are the people who come to visit, to learn, to offer advice and to work. Although he is always busy and may sometimes wish he could hide in his potatoes in order to prevent getting distracted from the days work, he still welcomes the energy that each visitor brings with them.
It is also important to Jim to look beyond his own farm and to pass on his knowledge that he has gained over a life times involvement in food production. By giving courses on his farm and encouraging volunteers he is helping to ensure that the almost lost art of growing food is revived again. In order to farm sustainably he believes that the produce of a farm must be sold within about five miles of where it was grown. In order to do this there has to be a lot more people growing vegetables on a small scale and the people who see themselves doing this attend his commercial growers course. Those who wish to simply grow for themselves attend the “Month by Month” course, and people who wish to take things a step further by employing horse power rather than tractor power can attend the working horses course. Jim himself has been working horses on the farm for sometime and is currently training two Percheron horses and intends to breed and train more in the future.
He says that horses have a gentler interaction with the land. Where a tractor will compact soil, leaving it harder to work with in the future a horse will step gently through the small furrows between beds leaving foot prints where the soil remains loose underneath. A healthy supply of manure and an independence from economic trends outside of the farm are other advantages of using horses. This type of independence is what Jim is constantly working towards and the ability to live solely off the income generated by selling his vegetables and by giving courses is vital to him. As a farmer in the twenty first century there is generally the need to accept subsidies and to do work outside of the farm in order to survive. Isolation is also a major problem for farmers now and because of this Jim is happy to remain dependent on people rather than outside income.
The Friday before his open day of this year I went out with Chris and another friend, Aurelia, for the day in order to help with the preparations. As Aurelia talked to Jim about how her grandmother had worked in the paddy fields in Italy years ago we all got on with our first jobs of the day.
We weeded the sweet corn and also shook the huge stalks so that the pollen from the male flower on each plant would fall down to fertilise the female flower lower down on the stalk. Pieces of sweet corn flower floated down into our hair as we pulled the chickweed from the loose earth. The path between it and the basil was also weeded and the tomatoes watered. The heat in the giant polytunnel was at times oppressive and a couple of moments standing out in the fresh air were required every so often in order to clear the head. As I stood there watching Chris work I knew that he would one day become a farmer on his own land. With the patience that only a farmer can have he carefully picked his way along 100ft of corn, no longer a novice. Now he knows the reality of what’s involved in growing vegetables and he has even more enthusiasm for it in this his third summer on the farm. It turns out that he has a personality that suits farming. A calm and steady approach needs to be taken to the jobs in hand and you can happily work in silence if that is the mood of the day. Time must be given to observing the crops, the weather and ones own reaction to the day. Chris has found a place where patience is valued, where silence is not frowned upon and where hard work is rewarded with satisfaction.
Moving down to the outside flower and herb beds we cleared out the weeds and removed any dying flower heads. Robbing Aurelia’s orange hat I battled with one of the few spells of sunshine we’ve had in the last two months and then we found a cool place to sow oriental greens, lettuce and spinach. A quick weed in the other polytunnel and we were done for the day.
The open day on the August bank holiday weekend brought many visitors despite the showery weather. Wandering through the flowers and the crops people could see where the vegetables they buy at the Killaloe market come from and got some idea of what they could produce for themselves if they felt the urge.
In the gaps between the showers Chris wore his other hat of musician and played some classical guitar to entertain the guests as they gravitated back towards the flap jacks, brownies, cakes and scones. Sitting outide, they could slowly absorb the splendid view of the mountains in the distance and vegetable and salads beds bursting with life and colour.
Jim says that he is doing nothing new, but I think he is. Most of the people of the last century were happy to embrace the new technologies that came along promising a release from meagrely rewarded hard work that never ended. Jim however has seen the disappointments and problems associated with those new technologies and continues to works his land in the traditional way. He now works with a different awareness than the people who went before him. He is comfortable in the knowledge that farming is not just about making a living. It is about enjoying a way of life that nearly faded out but looks set to make a come back in the not too distant future.