A Voyage of Discovery

Starting up

Seven Acres is a small start-up farm in Castlefleming, five miles outside Rathdowney in Co. Laois. We specialise in naturally grown vegetables: although we are not currently certified as organic, we adhere to organic principles and do not use GMOs or synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers.

We started from scratch in April 2016 with a polytunnel and a freshly ploughed portion of a field of grazing land. In our first year, we focused on growing root vegetables and 'big' leaf crops like kale and chard outside, with tomatoes as the main crop in the tunnel. Last year, we added a range of salad leaves and herbs, along with various alliums and brassicas. Like most farmers and growers around the country, we were seriously challenged this year by the extreme weather, which has had an impact on what and how well we could grow. We are aiming to build on this experience to improve our techniques, and thus our variety and yields, over the Winter and in the coming year.

Our aim is to grow as wide a range of vegetables as is practical, to cover the entire nutritional spectrum in line with our ethos of food sovereignty and sustainability. To this end, we are also experimenting with growing 'exotic' crops in the polytunnel, notably ginger and turmeric, and researching into ingredient substitutions (e.g. nasturtium seeds for peppercorns). Within five years, We hope to be able to grow all the ingredients needed for a simple curry on our own land.

Our growing methods promote soil fertility and nutrients, and care and respect for the environment. We are gradually turning our open field into a diverse habitat for wildlife as well as a site for food production.

Making and Selling

After five months of growing and more of preparing, we set out our goods in two great regional markets — the bustling Tullamore Food Fayre in Offaly's county town and Emo Village Farmers Market, smaller in size but in an idyllic setting. Last year, we also started trading at Mountrath Cottage Market, part of GIY's excellent Cottage Market initiative. We have also sold at regional events such as the Laois Garden Festival and the Portlaoise Old Fort Quarter Festival.

We gained a lot of experience from all these trading explorations, and they enabled us to understand our strengths and priorities accordingly. Now, toward the end of 2018, we have decided to focus on our main outlet, Tullamore Food Fayre, and on building up our capacity to sell directly from the farm.

We experimented with producing a number of sauces and condiments featuring our own produce; in particular, a vegetable stock concentrate which won an award for innovation, since there is nothing else quite like it on the market. Ultimately, though, it proved too time-consuming to do this alongside our core activity of growing vegetables and managing our land. We learned, as many have before us, that it is best to concentrate on striving for excellence in one area before adventuring into others.

Getting Noticed

Receiving the INSPIRE Rathdowney special award for innovation from Brian Ogilvie of IT Carlow Research & Commercialisation Support Centre

Darina lavishes praise on the food producers of her native Laois following her appearance as keynote speaker at the Food Futures 2030 conference and exhibition

So what next?

We are now entering a period of expansion and development on a modest scale, despite the impact of the severe Winter and long Summer drought which set us back a couple of months, along with virtually every other farmer and grower in the country.

We will have a second polytunnel before the year is over, and are laying plans for an on-site farm shop and other basic visitor facilities. A big focus for us this year and over the coming period is to understand and put into practice the elements of agroecology. As a start, we will be working to build up our soil fertility and structure and move towards a minimum-tillage system of production. We also aim to plant more trees and hedges as a means of sheltering crops and encouraging biodiversity.

Earlier this year, we completed a mentoring and business development programme for food businesses in Laois, Connect 2 Laois for Food. We are now involved in a food producers group that has arisen from this, and as part of which we are at the heart of a major new project to put our county on the food tourism map. All of this is giving a real boost and direction to our activities as well as consolidating and giving fresh impetus to the already thriving network of artisan food producers in the county.

Two steps forward, one step back, the Seven Acres project is lurching hopefully towards a food future that we can all share.