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My parents bought the farm in Straid in 1976, coincidentally the year Patricia and I got married. Prior to that the Gilbert family had lived in West Belfast, where we had sufficient land for my Mother to keep a few birds, a couple of Jersey cows (how I long for that unhomogenized, unpasteurized milk) and an improbably large number of Shetland ponies. Right on the city’s edge, what was our house has subsequently become part of the Twinbrook housing estate.

Patricia and I moved with our two children, Jennifer and Matthew, to Ballylagan in 1990, when we converted the derelict cornmill adjacent to my parent’s house  into our dwelling. I gave up my job in Belfast working for a multi-national and became a househusband and farmer. Financially this was probably the stupidest thing I ever did, but I have never regretted it.

Very soon into my farming career it occurred to me that my depth of ignorance was going to make it almost impossible to make any money unless we tried for some niche market. Though I had always been interested in good food, I don’t remember being particularly ‘organic’ minded in the 1990s. The decision to convert to organic was more a commercial one than an emotional or scientific one. That said, once you become involved in organic production, you very quickly realize that there is something seriously wrong with intensive production, and it’s not long before you start avoiding certain non-organic foods entirely. (I still won’t eat pork or chicken in restaurants, and I always feel uncomfortable with the vegetarian options because of the chemicals used.) I stopped eating pork for about two years, but my craving for bacon drove me into rearing my own pigs.

My mother had always wanted to be a farmer and indeed she had been on the point of studying agriculture at Queen’s when her courage failed her on the realization that she would be the only female on the course. She studied French instead. When my parents moved to Straid, they did so unencumbered by children and suddenly my mother had all the land she wanted to rear her beloved Shetlands, plus some beef cows and poultry. This was hobby farming and she loved it. (My father’s attitude was benign tolerance. He didn’t like to get his hands dirty, though he was always there if needed.) By 1990 my mother was 73 and finding the cattle too much for her. I was in a job in Belfast that I was bored with and so I agreed to take over the farm when we moved to Straid.

My mother died in 2008 and my father died in 2010.

Man cannot live by beef alone, and a farm shop selling only beef is a hard sell.  Thus we gradually started to rear sheep and then pigs and table birds. And of course vegetables – I’ve grown vegetables since I was about 10 and it remains my favourite part of the job.

In 2009 Patricia retired from her job as a landscape architect, and instead of working 60 hours a week for her company and twenty hours a week on the farm, now is able to work the full 80 hours on the farm.  Her involvement at this stage has driven the recent developments – the building of the micro hydro electric scheme, the conversion of my parent’s house into a Guest House and the opening of the Tearoom. As I write this in November 2011, Patricia and I are looking forward to the homecoming of daughter Jennifer, bringing with her partner Hein all the way from South Africa. Mercifully Hein has studied agriculture and is anticipating the introduction of some order into our chaotic farming methods. I keenly await these changes too – anything that means less work for me is to be welcomed. But what I’m really looking forward to spending all of my time growing vegetables and planting things.

I should write a book.


- Tom Gilbert