From Farm to Fork: Sweetbank Farm, Wicklow
The Irish Times 15/5/2010
WORDS: SUZANNE CAMPBELL
PHOTOGRAPHY: ALAN BETSON
To stressed out city folk, organic farming may seem like an idyllic occupation, but as Co Wicklow farmer Debbie Johnston explains, it's not all home-baked pies and eco-glamour.
ON A SPRING day, when the white cuddly lambs are frolicking in the fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that farming is one of the nicest occupations on the planet. At Debbie and David Johnston’s farm in Newcastle, Co Wicklow, the scene is perfect. From cut-stone farm buildings, the couple go about their work, managing 90 head of cattle, a summer fruit farm and their biggest enterprise – more than 100 organic certified ewes. But though it may seem a bucolic idyll, the Johnstons have just finished lambing, and they have a more realistic take on things.
“Lambing!” says Debbie. “The BBC did a week of television shows on it and we were just laughing watching it. For us it’s hard work, we’re exhausted now that we’ve got to the end of it.” Their ewes began lambing in mid-February. “My husband, David, does all the work. To be honest, I’m really the support crew. He goes in and out of the sheds all night and makes sure that every ewe is doing okay. You could leave them on their own but he doesn’t take that risk.”
And it can be a risky business. Debbie showed me two adorable orphaned lambs whose mothers had died. “It does happen, you do everything you can to avoid it but every farm will have a couple this time of year.” These two are well-loved characters, climbing up the fence to see us, or more accurately, to see if there’s any chance of a feed. It’s no surprise that the antics of an orphaned lamb are a current YouTube sensation.
But having cute livestock doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. Over the past year many farmers have been weeping into their mugs of tea as milk prices fell to below the cost of production, and beef and grain incomes weren’t much better. Then winter set in, which we’re only just emerging from. “In a normal year you expect your grass to be growing by St Patrick’s Day,” Debbie says. “This year was like nothing we’d seen before. We had no grass, we had to use up stocks of feed and spent days breaking ice on water troughs, sliding around the yard and praying for the weather to change.”
Luckily, spring seems to have finally arrived and it’s with spring lamb that the Johnstons have carved out a niche business for themselves. They sell direct to customers who come to their farm to pick up a box containing a whole or half lamb during the months May to October. “We did many things over the years to diversify. The land had been in David’s family for four generations but he saw the writing on the wall in terms of farm incomes dropping and knew we could no longer rely on producing the same thing year after year.”
The Johnstons’ first innovation was growing summer fruits, something they are still involved in. They opened a farm shop which they ran successfully for 10 years. “It was really lovely but we found most of our customers were coming to the coffee shop and not really buying our produce. The reality is you have to be selling what you grow, and when we costed the time and effort to run the shop, we called it a day.”
At the moment, a mix of beef, summer fruits and organic lamb is working well. “You always have to be thinking on your feet with farming, and what we do is to offer top quality, grass-fed lamb at a really attractive price. Our product is up to 30 per cent cheaper than the supermarkets and selling direct is a way of controlling what we produce, all the way to the customer. We are not waiting for market fluctuations or depending on someone else to set the price.”
Debbie keeps a close eye on the business end of the farm and the minute something stops making money, “that’s when you change your strategy. It’s hard when there’s such a drive to make food cheaper, but cheap imported food is a false economy for all of us. After all, farming and food employ 300,000 people in Ireland.”
What keeps her doing what she’s doing when margins are so tight? “Sometimes you really wonder why you keep going,” she says with a laugh. “But I do really love it and I still get attached to the livestock, I even get a bit sad when animals are loaded into the trailer.”
Nevertheless, attachment to their lambs doesn’t stop her giving me her top cooking tips. “Keep it simple,” she advises. “The flavour is there, so you don’t need much seasoning. I like to butterfly the leg, stick in some sprigs of rosemary and roast it on the barbecue. Or if you’ve a few people coming, use the loin of the lamb, tie in some herbs and cloves of garlic, pop it into the oven and serve with some new potatoes.” Cute or not, now I want to start cooking.
The Johnstons’ lamb is available from their farm at Tiglin, Newcastle, Co Wicklow. A half lamb is €85 and a full lamb is €190. A half lamb cut to customers’ requirements is roughly the size of an average freezer shelf.
See sweetbankfarm.com; tel: 086-1730497
FROM FARM TO TABLE
Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb is a group of 27 farmers who sell their lambs direct. All lambs are matured for a minimum of seven days and cut to the customer’s specification. ringofkerryqualitylamb.ie.
Fieldstown Farm in North Co Dublin delivers half or whole lambs, butchered to your specific requirements, to addresses in the greater Dublin area (whole lamb minimum for delivery). Customers from further afield can collect their order. irishfood.ie.
Lambdirect.ie is a group of eight farmers from Mayo who farm, butcher and sell their own mountain and lowland lamb. They offer cuts packed in sealed trays ready for the oven or freezer. This summer they plan to offer a barbecue pack. Free local delivery once a week in their van. Contact: Ray Cawley, Shanvallyard, Tourmakeady, Co Mayo.
Doolin Farm Direct supplies local limestone-reared lamb direct to the consumer through box schemes, on-line orders and farmers’ markets. Contact Alan Nagle, tel: 086-4014132, email@example.com.
Comeragh Mountain Lamb in Waterford offer boxes of lamb; a full lamb includes legs, shoulders, cutlets, loin and gigot chops, and mince. Recipes included with every delivery. comeraghmountainlamb.ie.