When we feel down in the dumps, we instinctively reach out for our favourite food. And as if by magic, equilibrium is restored inside, our spirits are lifted and we feel better again, till the next time. Countless medical and scientific studies have proved that what we eat affects both our mood and our physical health.
Ireland is overflowing with lush green grass that is complimented by a mild climate with an abundance of fresh farm producers. This country’s agricultural heritage is strong and proud and we are known for our quality across the world. Organic farming is not new and essentially means that pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals considered harmful, are not used. getting your fruit and vegetables directly from these small farm producers, can give you total peace of mind because you can trace its origin from the soil to your kitchen. Just as in the 1970s sitcom ‘The Good Life,’ many towns and villages have noticed a surge in people opting to grow their own food using organic methods. 50 years on from that show, could we be seeing a revival and appreciation in sourcing food that has been tenderly grown on a small scale to ensure it has maximum taste and numerous other health benefits. So, perhaps just as the fictional Barbara and Tom Good realised, we are what we eat.
William Leonard of Delvin, completed a 4-year apprenticeship to become a carpenter just before the last recession drove the Irish building and construction industry to a standstill. Nobody could have predicted the economic downturn that hit Ireland like a thunderbolt. All the highly paid carpentry work dried up and what was left in its wake were thousands of skilled workers across the country wondering if and when a recovery would come. William realised that the most important thing in his life was the health and wellbeing of his wife and young children. Just like hundreds of thousands of other families in the same situation, either from financial necessity or from a desire to eat more healthily, he thought about growing food. His research reinforced his initial thoughts: most of the fresh food his family were buying to eat was being produced on a mass scale and was problematic because of all the chemicals being used on the land.
“I wanted my family to eat healthily and so we started to buy organic food directly from a Kildare farmer called Norman Kenny. Norman sold his produce in the market in Trim. I’d go up on a Friday from Delvin to Trim to get our weekly veg with Samantha my wife and my 3 children. I just wanted to give them better quality and more nutritious food.”
In 2013, William started to use the grazing land on his 14-acre family farm to grow vegetables. He bought and then sowed 500 blueberry bushes because the black and slightly acidic soil he had suited that particular fruit. However, his organic blueberry farm idea had a few problems he hadn’t foreseen. Birds loved his blueberries too, so he had to use netting to keep them out; he had to build fruit cages to keep the blueberries away from the ground; he had to control the weeds without using any chemicals and then the fruits had to be picked by hand as well.
But undeterred from that particular experience, William decided to change his strategy and put up his first commercial polytunnel to grow vegetables in. He gradually started to grow more and more but still didn’t have the skills in organic farming to make a living from it. He approached Pauline Hogan who sold organic produce from her stall at the Mullingar Farmers Market in the Penneys car park for advice.
“Pauline had a farm and I did some work there for her and she taught me how to grow things organically and do things the right way. It just so happened that Pauline at that time in her life wanted to move into basket making and she very kindly offered me her market stall which I took on and ran for 5 years… So, I used what I had learned from her to grow more produce and now have about 7 polytunnels on my farm, an acre of vegetables outside them and my 500 blueberry bushes, now everything is growing perfectly.”
The Back To Work Enterprise Scheme was invaluable for William because it gave him financial support for 2 years to help him set-up his organic produce business. He was also able to apply for a grant to build a cold store on the land.
William always had an entrepreneurial mindset. His plan was to set-up his own carpentry business, have his own apprentices and move into construction. The desire to improve or to do things better is a characteristic that he shares with many, many entrepreneurs.
“I never wanted to work for someone else. I was always critical about how things were done and decided that I would do things differently when I had my own business. For me the desire to have my own business meant that I could treat all my employees right and with respect, do the best job that I could do for my customers and provide leadership so it would bring out the best in people.”
The Shop premises
William had built up a really good customer base from the market stall where he saw his loyal customers as his friends. Opening an organic farm shop was something that he always envisaged at the back of his mind. The sole objective was to be able to supply a wider variety of products than he could from the market stall. Uniquely, he didn’t have the usual problems of trying to market his opening because all of his advertising was through word of mouth. His strategy of providing the best customer service meant that everybody who knew William knew about his new farm shop.
“I just wanted a farm shop with small rent and small rates and had looked at a few premises and then by chance this shop in Pearse Street came up for rent. It suited me and we took it over in August 2019 and only open 2 days a week, on a Thursday and Friday. It has a nice area where we can put out our vegetables with a very handy car park for customers too. It ticked all of the boxes and the landlords are very nice people as well.”
Together with his fresh farm produce, William also imports various items from a Netherlands based organic supplier. This is food that he cannot grow on his farm -oranges, lemons, pineapples; out of season fruit and vegetables and dry goods – nuts, seeds, olive oils and other staple foods – all organic.
“I only produce and sell nutritionally dense food. Good quality food that hasn’t been sprayed with questionable chemicals. There is so much science and data that shows such chemicals are harmful to our health especially when we are consuming such food day after day, year after year.”
William had trialled opening the shop a third day on a Saturday but was already beating his revenue targets by opening twice weekly. So he went back to twice weekly openings and instead does a market in Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in Camross on a Saturday.
Just after six months of opening his farm shop, the country went into lockdown in March 2020. However, it has affected William’s business positively. He explains why:
“All the restaurants, cafés were closed down and my customers who would usually dine out were cooking at home. We were open because we were an essential business and were able to supply fresh produce straight from my farm to the shop. Also, people had a little bit of a health scare and started to look at their health themselves to see how they could improve it. I truly believe that good quality food like mine has better nutritional value. You can’t beat the taste either of eating fresh organically produced carrots, spinach, mixed leaves, scallions, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, leaks and a variety of herbs.”
William plans to convert another 2 acres to produce more vegetables for next year. He already has his family helping him on the farm but now will have the use of a tractor that belonged to his wife Samantha’s grandfather. It’s an old piece of farm equipment but he has lovingly restored it. William is proof that it is possible to live a self-sufficient existence and grow good quality food that hasn’t been tampered with from the moment it is taken out of the ground to the time it is picked up from a shelf in his Mullingar farm shop. What happened to William was very unfortunate all those years ago, but somehow it feels that it was destined to happen. He is a happy 30-something, loves his supportive wife and talks very passionately about finally being in a financial position which allows him to spend valuable family time with his 3 young children. If only more of us cared about where the food we eat comes from. Still not convinced, then go and speak to William yourself, you know exactly where to find him every Thursday and Friday!
This article was published in the Westmeath Topic 15/10/2020.