Growing up on an organic vegetable farm in Westport, County Mayo, sustainable living and taking care of land was always a big part of Fergal Smith’s life.
“It’s very important to me to live sustainability and I think it should be important to us all. If we don't try to live in a sustainable way then what future do we have? For me having a connection to the land is what its all about; we come from the land and we need to look after it.
I got into surfing through my dad, who started surfing and I quickly followed. To paddle into good waves in Ireland can be tough but for me it is total joy.
I have many favourite waves in Ireland but I have settled around County Clare because I love the waves here, and the place as a whole. I love the wildness of the west of Ireland and the quietness that can often be found here. I love the weather here, whatever it may be and I love the landscape these great waves are set in.
Lots of things made me stop flying and be based at home full time, and the environmental impact of my surfing lifestyle was certainly a big reason. It felt selfish living that way; and I wanted to do something positive and return to the land.
And return to the land he did, setting up a community garden at Moyhill in 2013, growing vegetables and hosting summer cook-ups to shared their produce with the community and bringing them together.
The operation has now expanded into a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Set on 17 acres of Atlantic hillside near Lahinch, this is where he now spends most of his time, working alongside fellow pro surfers Matt Smith and Mitch Corbett.
CSA farms, although common across North America and Europe, have yet to truly catch on in Ireland. They work in that customers pay for produce in advance in order to better support farmers, and gain more control over what produce they are bringing into their kitchens. They require constant, long hours of intense work through rain and shine.
“I felt a real pull to grow food and teach other how to do so. We do teach kids and run workshops but although the project is continually developing we aren’t really in the teaching phase yet.
We are feeding 35 families and that number is growing every year, so have we have a lot of work to do. This means that we tend to have more practical learning than formal learning. We have work days on the farm, where people come and work in exchange for lunch and some food to take home.
It’s hard work but there is lot to learn every week and I think people really enjoy the work, and the community aspect of working together outdoors. I hope that people have a good experience when they come here, meet other people in their community and enjoy the good food. I hope that people learn the realities of growing food a bit more, and take away that it takes lots of work and thinking in order to produce food in a healthy way.
We have just keep doing what feels right and keep involving as many people as possible. We want to develop a social farming scheme in the near future where we take people with mental or physical disabilities, or anyone who needs a break from the world and wants to get closer to nature and connect and have them come work with us on our land.
This I feel is what society needs; people having healthy safe places to come and be with nature and work and learn, and to enjoy the beauty of nature together.”
The community garden and farm that Fergal and his friends have set up represents a growing section of society that stresses the importance of reconnecting with the land we live on, taking care of it and reaping the physical, emotional and spiritual rewards. They aren’t simply cynics of our material that want to escape and judge the world around them, but rather they seek to welcome and communicate and help people.
“When people come to the farm I feel that they get what we are trying to do. Outside of the farm, the modern world is not teaching people about what we are trying to do, so it can be hard for people to understand what we are doing and why we are trying so hard to do it.
My vision is big and I accept that it may not even all happen in this life time, but we need to dream big. We have a long list of projects and ideas that we want to develop, from organising kids camps and forest schools, social seasonal events, and feeding the community its year round diet from the land. To do this we need more land and are looking at acquiring more community owned land through which we can continue to grow all of our projects.”
One of these project is Hometree, the charity set up by Fergal and his friends, aimed at helping to reforest West Ireland, so far planting over 13,000 trees in their flat corner of Ireland.
“We are very passionate about planting trees, and are very excited to continue to plant many more. We want to show how we can work with the land to create an agro forestry model of farming, where we can grow both trees, and food between them.
When we planted the first apple trees we were told that we were mad, and that trees found it difficult to grow here. They didn’t, they grew tall and strong and produce delicious fruit. This was our reconnection to trees; we saw the birds come back, and the soil in the garden improve, more life and biodiversity. The seeds of change blew in all directions.”
Fergal’s story is inspiring simply because his actions express his priorities and beliefs. In a world with so much information, talk and news about any given subject, it can be easy to be blown this way and that in our opinions. It gives strength to know that there are people who follow their dreams, unerringly focusing on improving our society by humbly doing and leading by example. The old adage, be the change you want to see, rings true for Fergal.