Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Saturday 24 February 2018

Meet the Mayo man who swapped pro surfing for organic farming

Fergal Smith at work on Moy Hill Organic Farm near Lahinch, Co Clare, and (inset) Fergal surfing near the Cliffs of Moher.
Fergal Smith at work on Moy Hill Organic Farm near Lahinch, Co Clare, and (inset) Fergal surfing near the Cliffs of Moher.

Gabrielle Monaghan

After a stormy Christmas weekend, when the Atlantic waves roared onto the shoreline of west Clare, the sea at Freagh Point is finally calm.

Too calm for Fergal Smith, a 29-year-old professional surfer-turned-farmer keen to start the mild morning on the surfboard.

The young man with an earnest face and a mop of curly hair has emerged from the whitewashed cottage he's minding at Freagh Point and jumped into an old Nissan Micra, his collie cross sitting in the back beside a baby seat reserved for Sunshine, Smith's two-year-old daughter.

Fergal was raised on an organic farm outside Westport run by his father Chris. He learned to surf on Achill as a child and, at 18, set out to become a pro-surfer. He was soon an Irish champion and was being paid by surf brands to chase the world's largest waves, from Tahiti to Australia.

"For someone from a Mayo farming background, to be taking on the waves of my dreams beside surfers I'd only ever watched on videos was a dream come true," he says.

But by 2011, Fergal was disillusioned and had become concerned about the impact this travel was having on the environment. He decided to reject the jet-set lifestyle in favour of returning to his farming roots.

"The last year I flew, there were 18 flights in three months, nearly all long-hauls," he says. "I didn't feel comfortable doing that anymore. The idea of professional surfing is the more you travel and more photos you get, the more they pay you. But we're surfers and we're meant to be caring for the environment and nature and this style of business is damaging nature. I asked myself 'what's the best thing I can do?'. Growing food and being involved in the community was the answer. It ticks so many boxes."

Rather than take over his father's farm, Ireland's leading big-wave surfer began to embrace Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), where consumers work with a local organic farm and pay up front for produce for the season or year ahead. The model is still in its infancy in Ireland, but is popular in England, North America and Germany.

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To start off with, he set up the Moy Hill Community Garden outside Lahinch, on land on loan from Antoin O'Looney, the owner of the Moy House guesthouse and restaurant, to educate the community about organic growing and sustainable living.

Novice farmers

The Mayo man then pooled his surfing earnings with fellow surfers and novice farmers Mitch Corbett and Matt Smith to buy the patch of land. They have since piloted a box scheme, held cook-outs on Friday evenings, and events such as music gigs.

The three surfers are allowing volunteers to take over the community garden to enable them to focus on a more ambitious project.

In early 2016, they bought 17 acres of land, most of it hilly bogland that had lain untouched for 30 years, to create an organic farm. They hired diggers, to build their own road to the site, and set about draining the land. On two of the best acres, they began growing vegetables under the CSA model and using fertilisers of seaweed, manure and silage mulch.

"We're trying to get to a point where the farm produces food, feeds the community and makes money," he says. "We're very aware that it's going to have to be a viable business. In three years' time, it should pay two or three people a full-time wage.

"We have all these things stacked against us, from poor land to bad weather. But if we can make it work here, then nobody has an excuse not to replicate it elsewhere.

Fergal contested the last general election as a Green Party candidate. He may have been unsuccessful, but it did give him the opportunity to proselytise, though a series of six campaign events, the merits of the CSA model.

He says: "The CSA model is a much more community-centred model: we have people here working on the farm, we run events, we have parties at the end of the summer, we have a meal in the community hall.

"We are losing our sense of community in rural Ireland, which is causing huge isolation. Everyone has their own car and goes to the shop on their own, so we don't have the co-existence we had 30 years ago. We all grew up with our neighbours calling in for a chat or a song or a dinner. All of that was such a part of Ireland, that it shouldn't be hard to go back to."

Even the start of the working day at the surfers' farm is a group initiative: it begins with an hour-long yoga session in a polythene dome. The site is solar powered and the produce is watered from makeshift rainwater harvesting tanks.

While the hillside farm commands views across Liscannor Bay and planted willow and trees will serve as windbreakers, the site's exposed nature means the polytunnels are at risk of blowing away. So the group is about to embark on a crowdfunding campaign to raise at least €30,000 to build a 150-ft sheltered glasshouse.

The surfers' foray into farming has just been documented in a video called Beyond the Break, made for Failte Ireland's food division by two award-winning American filmmakers.

Fergal believes surfing and farming are not as mutually exclusive as they might seem from the outset.

"The farm is quiet at this time of year and the surfing is as busy as it gets because there's non-stop waves in winter," he says. "In the summer, you can work all day and go for a leisurely surf on the beach in the evening."

Indo Farming