Moyleabbey Organic Farm
Located close to the picturesque Quaker village of Ballitore, Co. Kildare, Moyleabbey Organic Farm (website) has been going from strength to strength since been set up from scratch little over a decade ago. Liam Ryan eventually took the plunge having spent time in London after growing up on the family dairy farm not far from Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. “I’ve been interested in growing from a young age but we didn’t grow much when I was young as my father loved animals – growing wasn’t his favourite thing. I was always drawn to growing more than to the animals though.” After moving to London, it wasn’t long before the growing bug bit and after doing numerous courses and eventually an apprenticeship, Liam bought Moyleabbey Farm and farmed mostly as a hobby until achieving full organic status in 2006.
After trying a few different markets, Liam began selling at Carlow Farmers Market in September 2009. “People used to laugh at the markets ‘they won’t last, it’s just a hobby’ but the good ones are lasting and Carlow is growing steadily.” Liam is now chairman of Carlow Farmers Market, who launched their new website over the Summer and also sells at the Moyleabbey Farm Shop on Friday’s between 12 midday and 7pm. I visited the farm in late Spring and Louise first took me on a tour – it’s an impressive set up. Producing 18 different crops over the course of the year, the farm is well laid out with the orchard being my particular favourite. Liam’s daughter Mimi was also present for the tour and her knowledge of the farm was quite incredible, growing up around such passion is surely the best way to learn.
I’m always interested to hear of the challenges that organic farmers face. Unlike “conventional” farms, the spraying of chemicals is forbidden in an organic system and so it can prove difficult to keep control of everything. “Every crop has it’s own challenge and weakness. We use nets to keep out insects and birds – it just helps (the plants) to get established and you can walk away from them and know that they are ok. We have rabbit fencing around both of these fields. In the early days, when (the fencing) wasn’t complete, it was a real pain! We have various pests and disease but we use a garlic spray which works well on botrytis and mildew. We use it on lots of crops, I find it very good and citrus works well on mildew too.”
Competing with the unrealistically low prices of the supermarkets can also be a headache for organic farmers but Liam isn’t too concerned by this: “Some supermarkets now sell organic but the stuff just doesn’t taste well. There’s people who don’t mind about that but there’s also people that do. Some people think that others are cracked (for paying extra for organic produce) but they aren’t ‘foodie’ people so they just don’t get it. They think ‘this is an alright tomato’ but they’re not really tasting it but someone who is really savouring it is different. They’d prefer to have one of the good ones than three, four or five of the others. There’s also alot of people now who realise that it doesn’t make sense, like a chicken for example at €2.50 – it doesn’t seem possible. It’s a loss maker but it has also driven everything else down to really low production values.”
Doing their bit for society, Moyleabbey Farm also regularly donate produce to St. Clare’s Hospitality Food Kitchen in Carlow Town. “It just makes sense and it’s nice to be able to support them a little bit. A good few of my customers were involved (with the food kitchen) so that’s how it came about. At certain times of the year we do have plenty of excess so it can work well like that.” A modest response, donating to a food kitchen, in my eyes, is one of the most generous things a farmer can do and I have an enormous amount of respect for Liam for choosing to do this rather than attempting to sell the produce elsewhere.
As for the future, it’s easy to see that Moyleabbey will continue to grow from strength to strength. “This is the first time that we’ve had three people , two others and myself working. For a long time I was on my own before hiring one and now two people. Now we are just fine tuning really. The big challenge is always scaling up – doing the same thing but for more people and using paid help rather than just myself. The complex bits are hard to pass on and show people so it’s fine tuning them issues really. You’re just developing all the time and trying to stay up to date with everything.”
What does Liam most look forward to coming into season? “peas, sweetcorn and strawberries too. The strawberries are great as it really kicks off the year. They are a good early crop, the second year especially. Strawberries have been really good for us, people really look forward to them.” Although the strawberry season is long over, the Moyleabbey stall will still have sweetcorn this weekend along with pumpkins, leeks, beetroot, kale, French beans, spinach, just harvested russet apples and the first Brussels sprouts of the season. Catch them at Carlow Farmers Market this Saturday or at the farm shop on Friday.
*Featured Photo at the top of page courtesy of Nuala Grogan, Carlow Photographic Society