Castleruddery Organic Farm
“Are these lemons waxed or unwaxed” – it’s about five years ago and I’m way out of my comfort zone. I’ve just read in a Darina Allen book that I must use the zest of unwaxed lemons only and I’m having trouble finding some. It’s my first time to Naas Farmers Market and, still not a seasoned vegetable eater, I’m mesmerised by the choice in front of me. Dominic, the man behind the vegetable stall helpfully explains that there is no way for a waxed lemon to be labelled organic so I need not worry.
Five years on and I’m driving towards that same stall holder’s farm in the shadow of Lugnaquilla, Leinster’s highest point. It’s a beautiful drive through the rolling hills of East Kildare and West Wicklow and I’m struck by the views of the vivid green mountains and interspersed forest. Dominic greets me at the Castleruddery Farm Shop and we chat as he begins the tour of the farm through polytunnels and out onto open ground.
It’s fascinating to see the logistics of the operation. The last of the early crops are just finishing in the tunnels as the first of the outside vegetables are coming into season. The highlight for me is a couple of sweet sugar-snap peas picked straight from the plant, beautiful. By this time we are joined by Dominic’s wife Hilda, their two dogs and cat, who is rubbing off my legs purring desperately for a rub! We continue our walk and Hilda kindly hands me some young globe artichokes and fresh garlic. I’ve rarely eaten artichokes and never cooked with them so this is a real treat.
We retreat to the kitchen for some coffee and discuss the history of the farm aswel as the challenges and benefits of organic farming.
How long have you had the farm?
Dominic: It’s a family farm, so forever! My Father moved here when he was fourteen. Myself and Hilda have been producing on the land since 1989 commercially, on a very small scale, and prior to that we would have had a little kitchen garden.
Many people, myself included, see farming as quite an idyllic lifestyle. What do you say to those of us who think like that and what are your daily challenges that the rest of us don’t necessarily see?
Dominic: In many ways it is idyllic. There are days that I love what I do and even on those high anxiety days during the summer, when there is just so much work around me, still you kind of lift your head and look around and think ‘this is nice.’ There is a lot of pressure and stress, it is a business but it’s a business in a nice environment doing a very nice thing which is growing food, selling food and connecting with people.
So it really is as idyllic as I think it is…..?
Dominic: Yes, for someone who is prepared to put in very long hours and put up with quite a lot of stress and anxiety along the way.
Disease, pests and weeds are quite easily dealt with on “conventional” farms through the spraying of a cocktail of chemicals, how do you deal with them here?
Dominic: The cornerstone for what we do is a healthy soil. You put a healthy plant into healthy soil and straight away it’s got a head start, it’s got some chance to fight off pests and disease. For the more mundane things – nets are used to keep off pigeons when plants are young. Disease is not such a huge problem because we’re starting with healthy plants. Now and then, during a very wet period you might get a mildew problem but you try to grow varieties that are resistant to mildew and botrytis. Weeds are more of a problem than pests and disease. (For) weeding we have both machines and good old fashioned hoeing and hand weeding but we have no easy solutions for it.
Irish people are notoriously conservative when it comes to food but have you noticed any change in their buying habits since you first started in 1989?
Dominic: Very much so. Back in ’89 it was much more of a niche thing. Even up to eight or nine years ago you had groups of people who were very committed to the whole organic thing and that was how they were going to feed their family but you also had the people who were having the dinner party or guests around and you’d see them once in a blue moon. They’d buy the food just to be able to say “this is all organic.” Now there are more and more people making that choice to say “we don’t have control over an awful lot of things in our lives but the one thing we can control is how we feed our family.” As a result of that we have an awful lot of normal people making the commitment to do their best in terms of the food they eat. So yes, it has changed.
We are just coming into the summer now. What fruit and veg are you most looking forward to?
Dominic: Our own cherry tomatoes. This week we had imported the apricots, the cherries, nectarines and peaches and people were getting very excited but I’ll get more excited when I have the first of my own cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Every year I get excited by that.
What’s next for Castleruddery Organic Farm?
Dominic, with a wry smile: We’re going to take over the World! No! Just make more connections with local people and consumers who are cooking. That’s what I get the biggest buzz out of, just the notion that you’re part of the great pleasure people get from cooking and eating. This notion of being just one of many suppliers to some huge chain, this faceless thing – we used to do that years ago but I think over the past ten to fifteen years, what keeps us going is the feedback and the connections with people. That’s the most satisfying part.
Dominic, thank you very much.
Huge thank you to Dominic and Hilda for showing me around and answering my many (and sometimes silly) questions. It was a very informative afternoon and the artichokes and garlic provided the most delicious lunch the next day. I am always looking for more artisan producers to feature, if you are one and are interested please send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org