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A large plastic tarp covers the corner of the Garden Gnomes market farm at the back of Dublin City University (DCU).
Soon, it will be pulled over to cover the rest of the vegetable plots, too, as farmers say adieu to the growing season until early spring.
“We’re just taking up the irrigation posts at the moment and we’ll bring that tarp over and we’ll be walking away,” said Shane Matthews, one of the trio who call themselves the Garden Gnomes.
Over the last five years, the Garden Gnomes – Shane and his brother Martin, and their friend Jason McGuire – have built a bona-fide market farm at DCU campus in the north of the city.
And once winter is over, they’ll be back – to once again showcase what they say is a different way to do agriculture, squeezing loads of harvests out of a small plot of land but without chemicals.
“We’re growing about 15–20 different varieties of crops and we’re on about a quarter of an acre here,” says Martin, the farm founder, which is roughly the size of a quarter of a football field. The fresh food goes straight from farm to local market in a couple of hours.
The system they use is called small plot intensive (SPIN) or biologically intensive farming, he says. “It’s a relatively new form of agriculture.”
Seamus Bradley, of Community Supported Agriculture Dublin, says they’re pushing the boundaries of what a small site can do.
“They’re getting one thing harvested and they’re getting another thing ready to plant right away so it’s quite labour intensive,” he says.
A mucky trail leads away from the concrete car park at the entrance to the Garden Gnomes’ farm.
Down the path, there are two polytunnels, 18 beds and about a dozen apple trees – left from before the trio took over. Cats prowl the gardens.
This used to be an agricultural college, says Martin, pointing from an open wooden shed in the midst of the farm, on an early November afternoon.
It hadn’t been used in two decades before they moved in, says Martin.
“You can see the bad areas. That’s the way that the whole garden was,” says Martin. “The whole garden was in bits.”
“Worse,” says Shane.
Over the past five years, the trio have transformed it into a fully functioning farm, dedicated to providing fresh vegetables to local farmer’s markets and restaurants. It’s on the verge too of being financially sustainable, says Martin.
“What we’re doing here is biologically intensive market farming so it’s all about high yields from a small land base,” says Martin.
“It’s about getting the yields up high enough and manageable enough that you can sustain yourself on the income,” he says.
Unlike most other farms, they focus on growing a variety of crops and consistent crop rotation, says Martin. Planning is essential.
Every bed is planned in succession, says Martin, kneeling down and pointing towards green shoots in the vegetable bed. “This is a mustard plant.”
He gestures towards another shoot a couple of metres over. “This is a brassica,” he says. “You don’t want the same family [of vegetable] following the same family. They’re taking the same nutrients from the same patch.”
They also stay away from artificial inputs and chemicals. All of the fertilisers are natural. For the gnomes to achieve high yields, the fertility of the soil is paramount.
It’s about soil biology, says Martin. “There’s so much to learn about the soil. It’s in the food, it’s in the ecosystem, it’s in you.”
Another essential of their method is that they avoid using heavy machinery and digging on the land, to minimise disrupting the soil, says Martin.
Fergal Anderson of the farming advocacy group Talamh Beo says he believes the state should be doing more to support initiatives such as the Garden Gnomes.
Changing the focus from using nitrates in soil to biological fertilisers is paramount to greening agriculture, says Anderson.
“Basically what you’re doing with no-dig systems is you’re favouring a fungal environment in the soil,” he says.
Many local food growers run into difficulties when it comes to getting funding, says Anderson.
It’s what led him to found Talamh Beo, he says. “Most of the institutions don’t recognise this type of farming because it’s not like a typical way of managing crops.”
It’s a problem he has come up against when trying to apply for grants from the Department of Agriculture for his own farm in Galway.
The department doesn’t really understand these farms, says Anderson. It “doesn’t understand the potential that’s there for employment, people’s livelihoods, for good quality food production”.
Part of Talamh Beo’s mission is to help people recognise that other methods of farming are possible. Not just the dominant monocrop farming, he says.
Small-site farming has advantages, says Anderson. These farms are more labour intensive, which means more jobs.
They ensure food supply is local, building trust between a community and the suppliers, he says. And they care for local biodiversity above and below the soil, he says.
The Department of Agriculture needs to recognise different types of farming, said Anderson. “They don’t even understand what the hell we’re doing so they’re saying how are we going to give you money.”
“We need it to be the opposite situation where they say, ‘We’re going to find 10,000 people that can do this and we’re going to give them €10,000 a year to do it,’” he says.
The demand is there, says Anderson. A minority will pursue it no matter what but its greater potential needs to be recognised, he says.
The Department of Agriculture didn’t respond to queries about different models of farming and financial support for those.
The Matthews brothers say they see what they’re doing as not only reimagining how food can be grown in small sites, but reconnecting local communities with their food providers.
“Community feedback is everything. It all goes into your crop plan. You have to know what you’re growing each week,” says Martin.
Anderson agrees. “It’s about reinventing the role of the local food provider which is a role that has been eroded over the past 50 years,” he says. There’s potential in such small sites for bringing food growers closer to communities, says Anderson, even in urban areas where space can be in short supply.
Customers will tell you what they like, what they don’t like and that dictates what they’ll grow on the farm, says Martin. Sometimes at the weekly market, they even pick up helpers.
“I met these guys down in the market. I chatted to them and they invited me down. That was a mistake. I took up the offer,” says Joe McGlue, a resident of Finglas that came across the Garden Gnomes weekly market in DCU one Friday.
McGlue has been down at the farm every Wednesday since, lending the lads a hand.
“I’m nosy. I had allotments back in the ’70s when the kids were small. Dublin allotments you know,” says McGlue.
He admires the gnomes and their passion for food and believes people are caring more than ever about where their food is coming from, he says.
Keeping the farm clean of non-organic inputs does have its problems. There are more pests and its harder to keep on top of weeds, says Martin.
“And not breaking your back,” says Shane, shaking his head, standing by the last of this season’s radishes. “I’m beaten down by this.”
“This fella’s very good at carrying it on his back,” says McGlue, with a laugh.