Ailbhe Gerrard is a passionate organic farmer with a heart for bees and also co-tutor on IFOAM – Organics International Regenerative Agriculture course.
© Liam Burke
What you did before setting up Brookfield Farm?
There was quite a lead up to buying Brookfield Farm in 2010. I wanted to leave school early and work with animals, but luckily my parents persuaded me otherwise. I considered studying veterinary science but the entry requirements were eye-wateringly high, so I decided to do an Arts degree focusing on Philosophy and English Literature.
From there, I worked my way into construction project management, while working full time with architects and landscape architects. When I completed an MBA in project management for construction, I worked with GOAL as a reconstruction manager in Sri Lanka for six months. My project was to rebuild schools damaged in the 2004 tsunami, and it was a fascinating and tough time. For the next few years, I shifted between project management on large construction projects in Ireland and worked voluntarily in places like Pakistan.
Tell us about your journey from the construction industry to organic farming.
In 2007, I felt the construction boom was coming to an end and began looking for other opportunities. I decided to retrain in sustainable development and studied for a MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development at University College London. An integral part of the course was preparing for a 2-week study trip in Accra, Ghana, to work with urban farmers on how to improve their access to land, clean water, and markets. After this trip and subsequent research for my MSc thesis on different forms of urban agriculture, I realized I had a deep interest in food production, global equity, and sustainability. So, after finishing the thesis, I made a life-changing decision to move back to Ireland from London and buy a farm.
I purchased Brookfield Farm, 26 hectares, close to my Tipperary family home in late 2010, and took on the challenge to turn a neglected farm around through innovation and diversification. In order to learn farming and make a farm living, I went back to college again and completed a 3 year MSc. Organic Farming, 2011- 2013, in Scotland. This provided valuable knowledge and practical farming skills and also insight into the realities of running a farm enterprise. Now Brookfield Farm has organically certified sheep, honey bees and a healthy agri-environment including 3 hectares of flower meadows.
Why did you decide to keep bees and opt for hive share?
It’s really important to me that bees and insects are looked after – they are the basis of the food chain in many ways, and as a farmer, their welfare is critical for sustainability and biodiversity. Honey is really popular, and it’s hard to get raw Irish honey. So, I thought as a ‘gathering’ mechanism that offering a share of honey would be a great way to get people interested. And it worked! We now have a loyal band of Hivesharer customers with many coming back year after year.
The Lough Derg lakeshore, with its gorgeous wildflowers, willows, ivy, and whitethorn, helps the bees throughout the seasons. People frequently say that it’s the best honey they have ever had. This may be partly due to having a farm with acres available to help support healthy colonies, it’s unusual for a beekeeper to have land. As I’m an active farmer, I can plan my land management to take my bees into account; for instance, we sow 10 acres of flowers every year, which gives a multi-floral flavour to the honey. Have a look at this video – it was made last summer and shows the loveliness of beekeeping!
What other enterprises have you started on your farm?
I have also started a beeswax candle business and really enjoy working with pure beeswax and dipping the dinner candles. It’s quite meditative as it takes a long time to build up from the wick to the finished dinner candle. It teaches patience and the importance of this ancient craft. I often do candle making demonstrations – it’s popular at Bloom with the Design Village, and at the Gifted craft fair in Dublin. The scented beeswax candles are popular, and becoming more so, with our new yummy scents, cinnamon bark, rosemary and I love Cedarwood and orange – delicious. Of course, old favourites. Lavender and natural can’t be beaten. It all depends on your mood!
What are your plans for the future?
We are working on plans to renovate the farmyard and make facilities for more visitors to see candle making demos, honey tastings, farm biodiversity walks, and other events. We’d really like visitors to be able to stay as well, to enjoy the amazing views and lakeshore and are looking at simple accommodation options.
Education is a really important part of the Brookfield Farm ethos, I always try to ensure that visitors learn about beekeeping and farming during their visits. I teach sustainable agriculture and other farming topics at Gurteen Agricultural College. And I was also part of a really exciting new programme, the IFOAM Regenerative Agriculture Foundation course which I co-tutored with Konrad Hauptfleisch in the UK in February 2019.
Ailbhe and Brookfield Farm have received numerous awards and accolades:
- Shortlisted for the Inaugural RDS Talamh Awards for sustainable farming.
- Shortlisted for RDS Forestry Awards – Dated April 2019.
- Nominated for Farming for Nature Awards 2018 – Check out the podcast.
- Bank of Ireland Startup Awards – Bronze award for Creative Retail and Craft awards regional finalist 2017.
- Nuffield Agricultural Scholar awarded in 2016.
- Design Council Selection for Bloom Craft Village (for excellence in craft) 2017, 2018.
- National Ploughing Championships Innovation Arena 2016. Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Farmers Journal.
- Selected Design Ireland Best Gifts RDS National Craft and Design Fair 2016, 2017, 2018.
- Awarded alumnus IFOAM – Organics International Global Organic Agriculture Leaders’ programme, 2015.
- Participated in IFOAM – Organics International Masterclass Korea 2017.
- Winner Irish Times Artisan Food Producers’ competition 2014.