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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘I am not fully in support of grants for farmers, but it should be for the right things’

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Ian McGrigor and Eileen Carroll, Gortbrack Ballyseedy, Tralee, Co. Kerry of Gortbrack Organic Farm, in this week’s Farmer Focus segment. It is home to an innovative centre for education, organic food training and development and cabin accommodation. They discuss this end of the business, selling organic veg and the future of farming.

“I do not have any farming background but grew up on allotments in London with a retired neighbour.

We are originally from England and have lived here for thirty-one years.

Mr Beavan(allotments) was a mentor, although I did not know it then, and ingrained in me the belief in natural, local food production. I have a photo of myself planting leeks at 4-years-old.

My aim is to develop food production and other farm products that are in balance with nature and biodiversity.

We want to show that biodiversity is the true wealth creator in our environment and that growing techniques/farming at whatever scale can benefit from this, both short-term and long-term – income, climate change and preserving and restoring our environment for future generations.

Our enterprise has evolved to be a place to understand the positive human relationship to natural processes and biodiversity.

Kerry organic farm

When we arrived here, this was a derelict farm with rushes, brambles and derelict buildings. Our land is exposed, north-facing, with extremely acid (4.7) soils.

Spruce only was the only grant we were offered when we tried to get help to plant deciduous woodland and were told by a forestry advisor that anything else would die.

So, we went about transforming the farm (10-acres) with deciduous trees, probably about 5,000, over the next three years or so.

We bought a Kerry cow so that we were real farmers and bred a small herd from her. Furthermore, we preserved our 2-acres of bog land and our old ditches and actually added a few when soil became available and established as many habitats as possible.

We kept and managed the meadows, ponds for water supply and biodiversity (and swimming!), wind shelters, woodlands, vegetable gardens polytunnels for protected cropping and fruit.

As I had run an organic market garden previously, we established a small example on the farm as our shelter developed and our micro climate developed.

We decided not to go into this in a big way because our soil and north-facing aspects were probably a bit extreme.

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Education

Early on in this enterprise, I was asked to teach things like organic gardening, market gardening, and this further developed into other related subjects.

We built a big polytunnel (partnership Tralee) in 1997 for all-weather education, and this, together with garden and farm planning (for biodiversity), has become the mainstay of our income whilst the far itself is our experimental proof that it works.

Also, we have school and community group visits, and as Kerry Earth Education Project have produced educational videos for schools for Bord Bia and demonstration gardens in Bloom (gold 2010).

We built eco-cabins about 12 years ago. The multiple and varied habitats of the farm make it a good learning experience for people interested in sustainable farming /growing and a lovely holiday stay.

Our main product is education. Most of my time is involved with this, planning for people and the occasional building of biodiversity gardens etc.

So, I /we are part-time farmers like many small farmers in Ireland, but my main income is directly related to our farm and the knowledge we have developed from our activities here.

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Veg and firewood

Because we have developed this multi-habitat space, our production is extremely varied. So, we sell about €2,000 of veg to Manna, the local organic shop, but this does not include all that we eat and people and groups in the cabins and some neighbours eat.

We produce all our own firewood from sustainable coppice systems. Also, we are harvesting more timber for other uses. Our water harvesting is valuable to us. So much we use but do not sell eggs, herbs, grapes or nectarines.

I do not seem to have time to be an active member of any groups or societies except if you want to include social farming, through which people come to the farm most Thursday mornings, as does Irish Seed Savers Seed Guardian and Tralee Seed and Plant Share.

Soil

I am most passionate about the core of farming in the future. It does not matter what you call it, organics, biodynamics, permaculture, agroforestry, regenerative farming, but we have to realise that it is all about the soil.

If we farm in a way that continuously improves the soil, we will end up with a food-rich system that extends endlessly into the future.

If we continue to damage our soils with chemicals and heavy machinery, then we are going to have a production collapse.

Our small space here shows quite simply that a space that would really show no profit under meat production can produce an absolute wealth of products by working with natural processes.

Certified organic farming

On this Organic Trust certified organic farm, we oversee nearly everything between us. We maintain and harvest from many habitats, so this life becomes multi-skilled and always innovative.

Organic farming is essentially growing/ farming in a system that does not use toxic chemicals (it does use some chemicals).

But it is not just the absence of chemicals. It is more about learning to understand, live with and use the natural processes in nature to produce sustainable and healthy food and other products.

An organic farm will become ever wealthier in terms of biodiversity and natural fertility and, therefore, deals in a positive way with climate change emissions and pollution etc.

To sell certified organic shops, you need a cert. Also, as I am self-educated, it is an external assessment, if you like.

All in all, I feel it is important to understand the natural processes in our world that keep us all healthy and to farm accordingly.

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Food security and sustainability 

My biggest highlight has been seeing that if you give nature a chance, it will pay you back in spades.

Generally, we have got to realise that the industrial system that is huge on emissions, huge on chemicals, huge on imported feed for huge herds and factory-farmed animals is unsustainable, and we need to transition to long-term sustainable systems. The same goes for grain and vegetable production.

We have to look at food security – which is not producing mass industrial food for export but food for local populations and also stop our reliance on imports for farming itself.

Small farmers and grants

I am not fully in support of grants for farmers, but it should be for the right things and not to supply industrial products abroad.

I am in favour of support for small farmers with a cap on farm size, carbon capture, biodiversity, and local food production.

We are looking at ways to pass the farm over to people who will value it for what it is.

Farming has to be viable – it is how we feed ourselves. Sometimes I think that connection is being lost.

The question might be – Is the human species viable? They are probably one and the same question. If we do not regenerate our natural world and our soils, then farming is not viable.

In five times, I envisage a wilder and more productive farmer, hopefully with some young ones to keep it all going.

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Reflection

Since I was a child in London, I have been interested in the idea of living on the land – whatever that means.

I always thought it should be to understand the natural world better, and I always thought we as, natural beings, need to produce what we need within a healthy environment, not in opposition to it.

We have a responsibility to protect our planet, and farmers control most of its land surface, so we need to work with nature. This is the only long-term sensible way forward.

The future of the planet and agriculture are inextricably linked. So right now, my outlook is bleak. Do I think we can all make the change? Not sure – I want to be optimistic!”

To share your story like this Kerry organic farm, email – [email protected]

See more Farmer Focus profiles.

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