The big ambition to keep it small
Here’s a business ethos you don’t often hear: “Everything will always be small scale. It’s the way we want to keep it.”
Ashling Carolan’s aim for SeanNua Farm flies in the face of entrepreneurial convention where the mantra of expansion and growth rule supreme. However, small shouldn’t be read negatively. It also means control, which enables Ashling and her fellow SeanNua farmers – her partner Gregory Droulon, and sister Grace Carolan - to apply regenerative practices to enhance soil quality while maximising output, nutrition, taste, customer satisfaction and output.
Nor should small scale be confused with a lack of economic ambition - far from it. The farming trio hope their virtuous agri-system resonates with customers, allowing them to charge a fair price and achieve a sustainable family enterprise. Still only in their second year, they currently generate enough income to enable Gregory and Grace to work full-time on the circa 60 acre farm – 70% of which is under forestry.
“We wouldn’t be there just yet,” says Ashling who retains her job with a French company, working remotely part time as project manager. “So this year will be a really good marker to see if we can support the three of us full time.”
In the idyllic drumlin setting of Curkish, their holistic approach instinctively makes perfect sense. The name of the farm, SeanNua, speaks of their ambition – utilising old style methods but applying them with a new perspective.
“If you look back, all the farms used to do it – everybody used to raise their own meat, grow their own veg. My mam would tell you, they never bought veg, they always grew everything and butchered their own pigs, cattle, whatever.”
Of course the Carolan sisters and Gregory are harking back to a time when such farming practices were undertaken out of necessity, not choice. Specialisation and intensification had yet to inveigle their way through the nation’s farm gates. SeanNua is a conscious rejection of today’s farming conventions.
“The ‘Nua’ would be the different approach; the research we have done on regenerative farming and incorporating that. So it’s different principles applied to the old ways I guess – the different ways of working with the holistic planned grazing, different ways of managing the garden with the no dig permaculture, and then the direct sale model – selling directly to the customer with no one in between, and getting to know them,” says Ashling.
They get to know their customers who visit the Curkish farm, or buy their produce at Bailieborough coffee shop Nomad, or the weekly markets they attend. Meeting customers gives them the chance to share their story, and explain why you should buy from them rather than cheaper multinational retailers. In this age of rapid inflation, Ashling even wonders if major discount stores are significantly cheaper?
“I think it could be interesting to do that comparison. Like prices are going up everywhere,” she observes.
She recalls Gregory telling her he saw a small iceberg lettuce going for €2 in a retail giant. SeanNua’s much larger lettuces go for 50c more, and they’ll claim there’s no comparison in terms of nutrition and flavour.
Ashling paraphrases an Instagram post she read about how regular customers mean so much to small independent growers.
“The week that that person doesn’t come to you - you really notice it. You’re like, ‘Oh, they didn’t come’. If that person doesn’t go to the supermarket, the supermarket is never gonna miss them. Never!”
Ashling is saying all this as we explore their incredible farm. Their veg plots are a verdant works of art. No wooden plank surrounds, just raised soil beds bordered by wood chip paths to ensure every morsel of soil is in the perpetual tango of absorbing nutrients and feeding vegetables. On the mizzly day the Celt visits, it’s the brassica clan that’s enjoying its moment in the cloud-covered sun. Cabbages, broccoli, kohlrabi, kales of all sorts are thriving.
“We don’t use any chemicals, so we would use home made fertilisers, like nettle tea, comfry tea, fern tea – and then having lots of flowers and lots of diversity around.”
Growing vegetables has given Ashling a heightened appreciation for seasonality.
“A woman was asking if we had any cucumbers,” she volunteers. “But our cucumbers aren’t ready yet.”
Ashling suggested the lady opt for the lesser-spotted salad turnip instead.
“You can just grate them or cut them very thinly and eat them raw. They make a really nice alternative to cucumber, which is the thing that brings the freshness and juiciness in your salads.
“Growing your own stuff, you know you haven’t put anything on it – you can pick it and eat it, and the taste is so different from anything you can buy that, even if you fancy a [shop bought] cucumber – ‘Oh no I’ll wait’.
“Even tomatoes – we haven’t had any since last summer, but you’re like, ‘No I’ll wait because I don’t want to get them elsewhere’.”
Elsewhere on the farm they also keep poultry and livestock. We pass their front garden which is a temporary home for a gaggle of 55 pasture raised geese while their usual field is being topped. Across the road just under 300 chickens roam a cordoned off section of a field.
“They’re like fertiliser bombs,” she marvels at the potency of chicken and geese droppings.
“They’re amazing - that’s another reason we wanted to have poultry - is to regenerate the land, we don’t want to use fertilisers, and we don’t use fertilisers.”
Operating a holistic grazing plan, the chickens are moved onto paddocks which the handful of cattle have just vacated. Their impressive mobile coup was constructed by Gregory and mounted onto the chassis of a caravan. They can thus hitch the coup onto the back of a jeep and bring the chickens to their new location - slightly rushy grass that will benefit from their scratching and poo-ing. Cattle and chickens move to their respective place on the grid every one or two days depending on grass growth. It takes planning galore; as does the garden.
“It’s a lot of Excel,” she confesses with a laugh, shattering the project’s sense of romance. “Fun stuff!”
Ashling really is having fun though. How could they not? The SeanNua trio are rapidly making their dream of a self sustaining lifestyles a reality, which has become all the more important since Ashling and Gregory’s infant daughter Luna arrived last September.
Ashling thinks back to the childhood she and Grace had in this very farm and says they were “absolutely blessed” and wants her daughter to share in the blessing.
“We’re very happy that she’ll grow up here and that she’ll have all this knowledge about food and self sufficiency and the importance of it.”
She reflects on how far they have come in such little time. It’s no small achievement.
“All of this was built by us and wheelbarrows,” she says, almost reminding herself. “So it feels really nice. I’m absolutely delighted.
“And then, when you look around, you’re like: ‘Ah, it’s lovely’.
“I’m very happy with what we’ve made. It just feels really nice.
“We’re getting there.”
If you wish to visit SeanNua Farm at Braky Road, Curkish, Bailieborough (A82 YW83) you can contact them on 083 414 1294 or email@example.com