Farmers’ markets have proven to be hugely popular for customers and stall holders alike. On a sunny day nothing could be nicer than strolling around a bustling market with so much to look at, delicious aromas of coffee and cooked foods, and a place to meet friends.
In a busy market such as Skibbereen it is possible to do the weekly shop such is the array on offer. But spare a thought for the stall holders who week after week turn up whatever the weather, come rain or shine or cold winter mornings; not to mention the previous day or two spent harvesting, preparing and packing up ready to be in the market for an early start.
Last Saturday I sat on the back ledge of Mary and Tom Stout’s van, listening to their story and watching their interactions with customers and fellow stallholders. It soon became clear that this kind of life, growing food and selling directly to customers and friends, or swapping with fellow market holders, is not only sustainable but actually what knits the fabric of a community together.
I have known Mary for about 30 years. We were introduced when I joined Skibbereen Country Market as a producer back in the early 1990s. Mary was already very involved in the organisation and continued to be so, long after I left. She grew soft fruit among other things for the Country Market, and the couple’s three children helped with picking and preparing through the long summer holidays. For many years Mary and Tom raised Christmas turkeys and it became a family tradition for us to meet Mary a couple of days before Christmas in a carpark in town to collect our bird. Sadly, (for us) they no longer raise turkeys.
Mary and Tom are a rare breed, theirs is the epitome of a small farm, about 80 acres. Tom laughingly says it’s 50 acres of reeds and 30 of grass but they raise some beef and have a good flock of sheep, though what keeps them especially busy is about an acre and a half of vegetables and soft fruit.
When Mary stopped milking cows a few years ago she had more time and, having always grown vegetables and fruit for the family, she now had time to increase production so they started to grow to sell. With the addition of a couple of tunnels to give them more scope for year round cropping, they grow a wide range of vegetables and fruit without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
It is very unusual to find such things as gooseberries, loganberries and even cape gooseberries (physalis peruviana) for sale, but Mary grows all these highly nutritious fruits. About five years ago she was approached by three young men in Skibbereen market, James, Luke and Robert, who had just opened The Mews restaurant in Baltimore. Mary says that working with them ‘put her on the map’. They now sell to other restaurants such as The Customs House.
Mary and Tom both come from farming backgrounds. Mary’s grandfather was a founding member of Drinagh co-op but she gives her father credit for getting her into vegetable growing when she was a child; despite his busy working life he always grew a vegetable garden for the family. Mary told me a story of when her mother brought home some unusual vegetable plants from the Country Market for him to plant. Back then they had no idea what the plants were, but they turned out to be perpetual spinach, a vegetable that she still grows and enjoys. She continues to be adventurous and is always on the lookout for interesting things to grow, hence the cape gooseberries.
Farming has always been a way of life, not just a way to make a living and small scale farming even more so. Mary and Tom work as a team, living and eating from their land, looking after their mix of animals and poultry and tending their extensive vegetable garden together. This may sound romantic but it’s not, it’s real and hard work and the result is a van full of produce which arrives in Skibbereen Market every Saturday. This produce changes with the seasons; vegetables, fruit, eggs, preserves, the occasional bunch of flowers and even a sack of logs in the winter. And whoever is manning the stall, whether it’s Tom doing the early shift or Mary later after she’s fed the livestock, you will always be greeted with a smile and chat and some great seasonal produce.