Professional surfers have established a regenerative, cooperative agriculture project in Ireland

by Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham

Located on a hilltop overlooking the Irish west coast lies Moy Hill Farm, a cooperative that produces organic food for over a hundred families each week.

Moy Hill’s yearly revenue is close to 100,000 euros, but getting there has been a steep uphill – literally and figuratively. It all started with a good surf wave on the other side of the mountain.

Looking north from the farm, a mountain can be spotted in the distance. It is the world-famous Cliffs of Moher, a Mecca for surfers. It was here that the professional surfers Mitch, Matt and Fergal, together with Fergal’s wife Sally, decided buy some land five years ago.

The vision was to create a place where people can learn about agriculture while also providing people in the area with good food.

Community farm 

Fergal Smith grew up on an organic farm and at an early age learned that life is hard work. He began dreaming of leaving the farm to become a professional surfer, riding the best waves of the world.

Fergal succeeded – he got a sponsorship with a big surfer brand and flew around the world surfing for several years. But one day after injuring his knee on a coral reef in Tahiti, he heard on the news about the nuclear disaster in Japan and it sparked an epiphany that would change his life forever.

Fergal suddenly realized that he did not want to live the surfer dream. He wanted to go back to his country and do something that was real, something that made a real difference for people. He figured he would use the gift he had been given by his parents: the know-how to grow healthy food while at the same improving the quality of the soil. Like this, he would inspire and teach others what he had learned and provide his local community with food.

But Fergal had no desire to take over his parents’ farm. It was too far from the sea and the people.

Fergal said: “To become lonely and isolated is the typical farmer’s fate, and the suicide statistics among farmers is very high. I wanted to create a community – a community farm”

Planting projects 

Together with friends and co-surfers Mitch Corbett and Matt Smith, and his wife Sally, Fergal began with a small plot of a few thousand square meters in the valley. They borrowed the land from a local Irish farmer and soon began reaping the fruits and quickly expanded the farm to include pigs and tree planting projects.

It wouldn’t feed the whole world but it was a start. And it was near the sea. The income from their surfing careers allowed them to work the farm without the pressure of making a profit straight away.

They founded a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a cooperative where customers pay in advance to take part in the harvest every week. The CSA model, or cooperative agriculture, is a way of self-organizing food distribution, breaking off from long retail chains and putting sellers and buyers in more direct relation to each other.

Soon however, the owner wanted the land back. So what next? They had already established a good production and a collaboration with the local community so it would be a shame to stop now. They discovered that another piece of land was for sale on the hilltop and decided to buy it.

The land was boggy, almost marsh-like, but with much regenerative work and soil improvement methods, they converted the hill into highly fertile farmland.

Regenerative work

The word ecological has become more of a brand than a technology. Meanwhile, it is more important than ever to actually rebuild soils.

Fergal explained: “we use regenerative cultivation methods, like preparing the soil with livestock grazing that speed up the process of soil improvement naturally. And we don’t use tractors.”

Another example of Moy Hill’s regenerative farming is that, when harvested, the roots of beans and sugar peas are left in the ground (as opposed to pulling out the whole plants with roots and all) as they bind vital nitrogen in the soil.

In 2018 another 24 hectares of land was for sale on the hilltop. Apparently, three different forestry companies were trying to outbid each other to buy the plot. The plan was to plant spruce, a type of monoculture that Fergal calls “an ecological desert”, a place where nothing else likes to grow. He also points put that the spruce is definitely not a native plant.

Moy Hill then went around to the neighbors to check if anyone was interested in buying the plot. But no one could afford it. At the same time, no one wanted to be neighbour with a spruce plantation.

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What a great concept…a thumbs up from the Team! 🙂
About the Author 
Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham is a journalist and ecologist from Sweden currently living in Portugal. (Image: Sonya Oldenvik Cunningham.)