The Organic Roots of Ballybrado

July 19th, 1983. It is still dark in the morning when a trek, almost 100m long, consisting of tractors, trailers, combine, farm machinery and accompanying vehicles, left Bad Kreuznach, Germany. Its destination: Cahir in the county of Tipperary, Ireland. Friends and neighbours, nearly the whole village had come to bid its farewell.

The route had been carefully planned to make sure bridges with weight restrictions would be avoided and places to pause and stay overnight would be identified and marked on the map.
The television crews accompanying the trek turned back at the French border. After four days and 645km the convoy reached Le Havre, ready to board the ferry for Ireland.

Nobody knew at the time that the farm at Ballybrado near Cahir, which was chosen as the new home, would soon become the centre point for the organic movement in Ireland.

Josef and Marianne Finke with their children and friends started what they set out to do: growing grain and turning it into flour in their farm mill, keeping sheep on the pastures along the River Suir, bordering their farm and having pigs in the woodlands, growing an abundance of vegetables for the house and living nearly self-sufficient. In between they found time to spread the message of living and working in harmony with nature.

The pioneer years were of course tough. An organic market was non-existent. In those days the term organic was hardly known in Ireland, which was ranging at the bottom of the wealth scale in Europe, joined only by Portugal. Life was very basic and “all food was good”.

For the organic farmers at Ballybrado it meant sitting tight and waiting for their time to come. And this time arrived in 1989 when BSE hit the news. This was the turning point for the organic movement as it dawned on consumers in Ireland that they cannot blindly trust all food put in front of them.

To survive up to that point nearly all the organic grain production of the farm had to be exported. One of the Ballybrado customers was Nestle who bought the organic oats from Ballybrado for their baby food range. The buyer and his agricultural technician arrived at Ballybrado and inspected the farm. Before they left they took a grain sample with them to examine it in a gas chromatograph in order to establish whether it contained any unwanted substances. After one week they rang and asked for a second sample because the gas chromatograph had not worked properly. Another week passed and having read the second test they informed delighted organic farmers at Ballybrado that they hadn’t seen grain samples like this for more than 25 years. The oats showed zero heavy metal residues.

For Josef and Marianne Finke at Ballybrado it was an acknowledgement that Ireland had been the right choice to start their new life.
Much laid before them: organic standards had to be developed; an inspection and certification system had to be established. A small group of very dedicated organic farmers, growers and even consumers from across Ireland spent much time in committee meetings to put a farming system on paper that addressed everything that they considered was wrong with the way our soils were treated and our food was produced. Ballybrado House was hosting many of these committee meetings and the discussions often lasted long into the nights
To put organic farming on the map and to raise awareness conferences were organised with speakers from countries where organic farming was already more advanced.

In 1989, as chairman of the Irish Farmers and Growers Association Josef wrote a discussion paper with concrete proposals for the development of the organic sector. He presented this to the then Taoisach Charles Haughey and gave a copy to every Member of Parliament. This triggered the establishment of the first organic research farm in Ireland on the grounds of the State Agricultural Advisory Body Teagasc. A first important target had been achieved.

Step by step “official” Ireland saw the merits of organic agriculture. Bord Bia invited Josef Finke for his input in its “Taste Council” to give organic and artisan producers access to food policy making. The government sought his input in its “Committee for the Development of the Organic Sector” and for many years he served as a director with the Organic Trust, the Irish inspection and certification body.

Today, more than 25 years later, Josef remembers these first years with affection. “Being associated to the pioneer years of this movement was, with hind sight, a privilege. The process of finding the own organic identity brought you in contact with extraordinary people from all works of life and from all corners of the globe. What all had in common was the hunger for fundamental change. This was only matched by the amount of energy which accompanied this hunger. To meet likeminded people anything was worth the trouble, even if it meant a journey of 50 miles with a Honda 50. And although from different national and cultural background the pursuit of the common goal created a new term, that of One World: think global and act local. Pioneer years are very special and they cannot be repeated once they are gone. You are out on a mission. You want to change the world. You sow seeds for change. Money was never important. What counted were people who you had made think and change which you had brought about”
Although the term organic has an increasing meaning in Ireland today and the development of the organic sector rests on many more shoulders, the name Ballybrado is still one of the most widely recognised name in the organic sector, firmly associated with the pioneer years of the organic sector in Ireland.