When we opened the school in 1983, the 100 acre farm around the school was not organic. In the 1970s, the surrounding land was farmed conventionally using artificial fertilisers, pesticides and sprays. The farm had been locally managed for a number of years and had been primarily utilized for the production of barley, wheat and potatoes. Darina recounts a story in 30 years at Ballymaloe Cookery School where she was standing before a class of students, lecturing on the importance of sourcing the best quality produce, when she saw out the window a tractor spraying one of the fields near the cookery school. With a growing body of research pointing to the dangers of pesticides and herbicide residues in food, she realised in that moment the pressing need for the farm to go organic.
Returning intensively farmed land to its natural fertility takes a number of years, and so initially it was allowed to grow grass which was mown twice a year. In 1998 we applied to the Organic Trust Ireland and were certified fully organic.
"It was a steep learning curve, but one that, after initial scepticism, the farm and garden staff relished. Our hugely skilled farm staff, none of whom had any training in organic growing, were quite resistant to the idea at first. They reminded me that I would want beautiful produce. The perception of organic farming was far from positive at the time. People imagined weed-infested fields, cosmetically challenged produce, low yields and sick animals that couldn't be treated with antibiotics. They were understandably worried that it would not be possible to produce top quality food under an organic system." Darina Allen
Inspired by their attendance at the Soil Association Conference in Circencester in 2000, Tim and Darina returned with the courage of their convictions. Soon, they began to see the fruits of their labours with superior quality crops and healthy animals. The organic farm here at the cookery school has gone from strength to strength with each year that passes, and it is a wonderful asset that is never taken for granted.
"It [is] such a joy to have our own organic produce, not only for the family and Ballymaloe House, but for the students who come from all over the world because the school is in the centre of an organic farm, and they have the opportunity to have a truly farm to fork experience."