Gerry Fitzsimons at his organic farm in Mullahoran Upper. Photo: Damian McCarney

The natural bedfellows of farming and nature

Had Gerry Fitzsimons listened to the advice he was given when he started out, there’s no way he would be an organic farmer. Having inherited the Mullahoran farm on which his father ran a conventional beef system, Gerry switched to the organic method a quarter of a century ago - a time when such systems were considered a little left-field.

“It was actually difficult to go organic then, because of all the advice,” recalls Gerry. “‘Forget about it’. ‘It’s not something you want to do’. ‘You’ll regret it’.

“I remember one fella from Teagasc telling me, ‘That oul craic is for somebody smoking funny fags and wearing sandals’.”

The Celt probes if Gerry invested in a pair of sandals?

“Funny enough, if I get the weather I do wear sandals,” he admits chuckling. “I used to smoke - not funny fags - but too many of the bad fags.”

The motivation to go organic was simply his life long love of working in the natural environment.

“I can recall the corncrake keeping us awake at night and the drumming of the snipe - even around here,” he says of his youth. “If you went down to the bog there could be a dozen snipe flying around. And you’d have curlew and woodcock.

“It’s probably three months since I’ve seen a snipe. And a woodcock - I haven’t seen one in five years, maybe more.”

His recent sightings of curlews are confined to holidays in Westport, while he had to book a four day trip to Inishbofin with a nature guide to see a corncrake.

Does Gerry feel personally responsible for the demise of any of these birds?

“Everybody contributed to the demise of the corncrake - it was the advent of silage, that’s what banished the corncrake. If we had been as wise then as we are now, we probably would have been fit to save them.

“I saw as a youth corncrake being killed. People didn’t know how to deal with it. There was nobody saying - ‘Don’t do this’. Nobody really cared - academia, government, any advisory body.”

It’s some weeks since the Celt visited his farm in Mullahoran Upper, a windswept 35 acres with a vantage point from which to view the fabulous rolling countryside below. At that stage the ground was sodden, the sky was pregnant with rainclouds and Gerry’s cattle were in the shed listening to Irish country on the radio. This really is organic.

“I do grassfed organic beef,” says Gerry whose primary job before retirement was with the P&T. “I haven’t bought a bag of meal in 30 years, and you look at those four cattle that are done.”

All Aberdeen Angus, the four he’s admiring are there with him going on two years and occupy one end of the shed while a dozen or so newcomers watch on from the other side. Given the number of cattle, he regards himself as a hobby farmer, but it’s a hobby he’s passionate about.

He regularly swaps out the cattle’s bedding, and feeds the cattle twice a day. He scatters in a helping of dried seaweed, enthusing, “It’s minerals, total minerals.”

When they’ve had their fill, Gerry will come in with his leaf blower to clean away any left overs.

“You wouldn’t like to be eating your dinner off the same plate you ate it off yesterday or the day before,” he remarks.

My hand’s resting on the gate and one friendly bullock strolls over and licks. Gerry bought this particular chap off a Ballinagh farmer last March. He recalls that this same farmer returned in recent weeks dropping off the newcomers which sparked this bullock into full voice.

“That animal began to loo here in the shed when those animals arrived. He was loo-ing almost constantly for two days, and he would never have seen them animals before. One of them out there is his half brother. The only thing I can suspect is he can actually smell his mother from him.”

I confess I’ve never heard the word ‘loo’ before.

“It’s probably a Mullahoran colloquialism: we’d ‘loo’ at football matches,” he says with a laugh.

I wonder if his attention to detail means he’s come as close as possible to guilt free beef. He can’t begin to understand how you could feel guilt eating beef.

“It’s the most natural thing - we followed the mammoth from we had spears.

“As I say about vegetarians - there’s very few vegetarians at the North Pole.”

He indulges the Celt’s question of guilt: “It’s guilt free because I look after those animals to the very best. And it’s the same as ourselves - what are we designed for? As sure as we’re born we’re going to die. If they’re taken care of to the very best, I’d have absolutely no guilt.”

He finally concedes: “I would have great regret for some animals going.”

Regardless of his regret, the time is nigh for his older stock.

“They’re nearly ready for slaughter,” he notes. Most go to the factory while he brings two at a time to a butcher in Sligo certified with the Organic Trust for a box scheme he runs. They are killed and hung for three weeks and Gerry sells it fresh and freezer ready.

“It’s a mix of all the different cuts in the animal - so you get a little bit of everything - your steaks, your roast, your stew and your mince - everything that’s in the animal is divided equally into 20kilo boxes. I quite literally have it sold before I pick it up.”

Of the recent influx of farmers into the organics scheme Gerry is at first unequivocal in declaring it “brilliant”. Then after a beat he adds: “It’s brilliant and maybe not so brilliant in another way. They’ll probably distort the market for a couple of years for us who are established.”

He wears any such concerns lightly and is optimistic for the future of the sector.

“I would have huge hope that organics is only in its infancy. It’s really about to take off. It is gaining traction.”

When it’s suggested the population can’t be fed affordably solely through organic farming, Gerry disputes this.

“You could feed everybody organically,” he insists. “You could feed the world organically.”

He surmises, “I could produce as much organically as I could conventionally,” and says there should be adequate funding pumped into ‘research and development’ to help maximise its potential. He acknowledges that farming was never his main job, but observes most beef or suckler farmers are part time. As such when the war in Ukraine sent fertiliser prices into the cosmos many farmers simply stopped using it.

“And lo and behold the grass still grew,” he says. He feels this was the moment more farmers, even locally, were converted to organics.

We ignore the showers and while away two hours without noticing the clock exploring the fields, the two wildlife ponds he’s dug, how this desolate laneway once had eight families living on it, and explore a raised section he says is an esker.

Gerry’s well used to hosting visitors. Some come to Mullahoran Upper through the Farming for Nature network - for which Gerry is an ambassador; others come for field courses run by the National Organics Training Services (NOTS).

Gerry is clearly passionate about trees. He has been approved for the one hectare native woodland scheme and he eagerly anticipates planting oak, scots pine, birch, alder, hazel and more.

He proudly points out hedges in the distance which he planted in 2008 and says he gives them only the minimum of attention.

“The odd time I will dress them for the electric fence, but that’s literally all I do. So I let the hedges grow.”

Of the huge machines used to flay hedges he brands them an “abomination” and remarks: “They should be banned - they destroy hedges.”

Planted in 2006 his orchard is maturing nicely. Of the numerous heritage varieties he recommends Cavan Wine, a dual purpose apple that stores very well. If any go wizened in storage, the cattle are the benefactors.

Gerry can’t walk a dozen steps without something catching his eye: a regiment of spiders making the most of the generous grass length, or a modest sorrel plant hidden amongst the multi species pasture, the leaf folds made by dock beetles, the surface of his ponds fizzing like static with tadpoles, how the dainty whin flowers are edible, or points out how the sycamore saplings that’s invaded the winter garlic in his veg garden (“I’ll transplant them and use them in hedges”).

He agrees that this mindfulness of his surrounds, and his appreciation for nature is much of the appeal for his approach to farming.

“I’ve looked at nature now for over 60 years and I’m still looking. It still has a draw for me.”