It might be very late, but Spring has finally arrived, at least on Castleruddery Organic Farm in Wicklow, where, after a pretty dismal winter, spirits are rising as the first of the season’s vegetables are harvested and seeds sown in their thousands in anticipation of another successful growing year.
With its lush valleys and temperate climate, it’s not for nothing that mountainous, elemental Co. Wicklow is known as the Garden of Ireland. It’s no surprise, then, to find that Hilda Crampton and Dominic Quinn chose the lovely town of Donard to set up Castleruddery in the late 1980s.
Nestled into the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, the farm is one of Ireland’s longest running organic farms, certified since 1989 no less, when organic was not the rage or movement that it is now.
But Hilda and Dominic were determined, and their hard work has paid off, not just in the amazing and wide variety of vegetables produced at Castleruddery, but in the way they have inspired other growers too, giving rise to a cluster of organic farms now dotted across the Wicklow countryside, geographically distinct but united by the desire to show that when done right, organic farming can be both ethically sound and commercially viable.
What started out as a kitchen garden has grown to around three hectares of mixed vegetables on a ten-hectare plot that also features a mix of old permanent pasture, oak and ash woodland, and oats. The produce is sold in farmers’ markets and in the on-site farm shop, but canny chefs have long cottoned on to the quality and flavour of the veg, choosing to showcase them in dishes that put them front and centre, or at least as co-stars that get their moment in the limelight alongside meat, fish or fowl.
Here at Chapter One, we’ve been a fan and supporter of Hilda and Dominic’s since the early 2000s. This is as fresh and good as it gets when it comes to veg, but it’s crucial, too, that as well as looking and tasting sensational, everything that comes out of Castleruddery is free of the pesticides and chemicals that are commonly used today by large-scale commercial growers. As with all our ingredients, we like our vegetables to be as fresh and unadorned as possible, so we prioritise those who grow not just for flavour but for purity too, because we believe it adds to the experience of eating our food.
And of course chefs particularly celebrate the arrival of Spring, as finally the supply of seasonal vegetables starts to expand, making their presence felt in the kitchen and on the plate.
So we think this is the perfect time to feature Castleruddery in our new series of profiles of suppliers, with a view to showcasing the people whose beautiful produce we choose for our simply because we believe it’s the best.
We recently did an interview with Hilda and Dominic, who were happy to share a few snippets about Castleruddery and the pleasures of being an organic grower.
Where did you get the idea to set up an organic farm in the 1980s?
We kept a large kitchen garden for our family and people started calling wanting to buy fresh produce, so it grew from that
And why organic?
Oh, organic is the only way – why would you want to eat anything else? At the time there was very little organic produce available and it was novel and very exciting.
How important, if at all, has the restaurant and catering business been in the success of Castleruddery?
It is very enjoyable to produce for restaurants; there is great feedback from the chefs. They get so excited when they visit our little farm and see the veggies growing. You can see the dishes being planned there and then!
Where do you find your inspiration and motivation – what keeps you going in this business?
Magic happens each year when the new seedlings emerge. It’s very rewarding watching it all unfold. We can’t help ourselves, it’s what we do!
You started the business at a time when organic food was very much a niche product. Things have changed hugely since then. To what do you attribute the change?
Consumer awareness, travel, increased availability and a greater interest in food.
What sort of changes have you seen in terms of demand for particular types or categories of vegetables? E.g. greens, potatoes, exotic varieties.
Sadly people no longer eat much cabbage or potatoes. Maybe they have forgotten how to cook them?
Do you have a favourite vegetable that you grow – and if so, why?
At the moment it is globe artichokes and rainbow chard. Both are very pleasant to produce and look and taste brilliant.
Where do you get inspiration or demand for new varieties to grow?
From seed producers, other growers and consumers.
Do you follow international trends, or do your buyers ask for particular types?
Not really – we focus on what grows well on our farm. Occasionally chefs will ask for an unusual variety and if we can source a suitable organic seed we will give it a go.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in commercial organic growing since you started?
There is much more agronomy advice available now for organic growers which is a fantastic support. Sales tend to be directly to the consumer which keeps the connection to the land available
Are there any future plans or innovations that you’re happy to share with us?
Just to grow our veggies better than ever!
Finally, what do you find most satisfying or rewarding about running an organic farm? (e.g. lifestyle, work/life balance, living in/with nature etc.)
We are so privileged to live and work in this beautiful part of Wicklow, to care for and improve our land and of course to eat so well.