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Tuesday 17 July 2018

'There was no plan B' - How this couple swapped the city for life as an organic farmer in Laois

Dominic and Ali Leonard in the tea rooms the opened on their farm
Dominic and Ali Leonard in the tea rooms the opened on their farm
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

It's a big leap from a background in theology and working with the homeless to organic farming, but it’s a journey Dominic Leonard has travelled in the last 20 years.

Along with his Australian-born wife Ali, Dominic has overseen the development of Castlewood Farm outside Durrow, Co Laois, into a thriving organic enterprise.

The farm converted to organic in 2001, gaining their full organic symbol with the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) in 2003. It was a bold move at the time as Dominic was very new to farming having grown up on the outskirts of Dublin.

He originally studied theology and had started to pursue further studies in psychotherapy. He then spent some time working with Focus Ireland, the homeless charity, in Dublin.

However, he changed direction when his maternal uncle offered him the opportunity to move to Durrow and run the family farm.

Dominic agreed on the condition he would be allowed to run the farm organically and could introduce an eco-tourism dimension.

“I then set about frantically reading as many books about organic farming as I could lay my hands on,” he said. “I did the Green Cert but there was virtually no mention of organic farming and I still had a lot of learning to do.

“I visited as many organic farms as I could and luckily around that time the Southeast Organic Discussion Group began. It was a fantastic induction to organics and was invaluable to me.

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“We learned a lot from each other and from then on, it was learning by trial and error, and I am still learning today.”

Over the years, Dominic and Ali developed a mixed farming enterprise at Castlewood while also rearing their three children.

The 250ac farm is located in a very picturesque setting with almost 30ac of old woodland and a similar area of land

designated as SAC. The idea of farm diversification was never too far from the couple’s minds — they were already selling their meat direct to the public so decided to explore the idea of a farm shop.

Having done some research mainly by visiting farm shops in the UK, they opted for a farm shop and tea rooms as both complimented each other.

They got planning permission in early 2010, however shortly afterwards Dominic had a near fatal accident on the farm which put everything on the back burner.

After suffering a brain injury from head trauma, Dominic spent months in rehabilitation.

With hard work and determination, he made a good recovery and it did not deter the couple from continuing with their plans.

In 2013 they received grant aid from Leader and are now facing into their fourth season with the business.

“It has been a steep learning curve for us as we learnt on the job,” added Dominic. “We started with a very basic menu and have slowly expanded it. This year we are hoping to add our own burgers to the menu.

“We wanted a small homely tea room, serving local and seasonal food. From the farm, we supply organic meat, apples, apple juice and a small amount of vegetables. Last year we did buy in local organic vegetables from Leo Dunne in Durrow, as demand outstripped what we could supply. The coffee we serve is roasted by Bell Lane in Mullingar, so we are supporting other local businesses.”

The farm currently has 25 suckler Simmental cross cows, 120 ewes, 20ac of oats for porridge and a further 20ac of cereals for animal feed on the farm, and any surplus is sold to other organic farmers. Dominic keeps hoggets and has lambs almost year-round.

There is a meat processing facility on site. “Every week in the shop there is fresh lamb for sale and we kill a pig once a month to have pork, bacon, rashers and sausages. It is popular as there is not a lot of organic pig meat available on the market.

“We also kill a beef animal, but you get a lot of meat from one animal so we sell it fresh initially — the remainder is sold as frozen, which does reduce the quantities that people are willing to buy,” said Dominic.

Overall, the venture is going well and accounts for 15pc of the farm turnover at the moment. There are plans in the pipeline to expand on the agritourism aspect of the farm with bespoke camping facilities.

The majority of people visiting Castlewood Farm are regulars and that is important in a rural area.

“Diversification is not for every farmer, and you certainly need to enjoy dealing with the public. We open Friday to Sunday as we do not have the footfall to open the entire week,” said Dominic.

“The drawback is that we have less time with the children on the weekends, but we make up for it in other ways and our objective is to make this farm as financially viable as possible and to enjoy that process.

“Since my accident, I have changed my attitude. Before it, I had to finish all the farming jobs today — now I am a bit more relaxed and tomorrow is another day. The work will get done. This is also true of my approach to the business — we are conscious that it grows sustainably and becomes an asset to the local area.”

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