“Sustainable agriculture has always been at the center of our concerns” – the couple farm to the fork until a beautiful art
When UK-born Vic Sprake met his wife in Kildare, Deborah Ni Chaoimhe 20 years ago, they bought a motorhome and traveled the country looking for a place to settle. . After finding their 30-acre farm near Clonakilty, West Cork, they renovated an old stone barn on the farm and made it their home.
The couple now run a herd of organic native Irish Dexter cattle and recently opened an on-farm restaurant which they supply with their organic Dexter beef and vegetables.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in Cheshire, UK, so farming is second nature to me,” says Vic. “I had a business in the UK for years which I then sold to buy the farm here.”
Before Vic and Deborah bought the land, it was used as a conventional farm. “The 50 shades of green had become one shade of green,” says Vic. “So the first thing we did was plow the land and reseed it with a mixture of native Irish clover and herbs. Years ago Ireland would have had hundreds of different herbs growing naturally and that’s what we wanted to bring the farm back to.
The land had a few old stone buildings from the 1850s and the couple decided to renovate one of them into their new home. “The farm is centered on three large stone barns. We wanted to use them because they were steeped in Irish history. So we converted a barn into a house and built a new shed for agricultural use, ”says Vic.
Vic and Deborah planted thousands of native hedges and trees across the country and fenced it in for cattle before purchasing their first Dexter cattle.
“There weren’t a lot of Dexter breeders in Ireland at the time, so we had to buy some here and others in the UK,” he says. “We started with just 20 and have grown over the years. Dexter cattle are the only breed we have kept due to their suitability for our farm and the climate. They’re lightweight, low-maintenance, and suitable for organics – that’s the path we ultimately took.
Vic and Deborah consulted with the Irish Organic Association for advice and after a two-year conversion period they officially became certified organic. “Going organic meant we couldn’t use chemicals, pesticides or artificial fertilizers and we had to have a closed herd,” says Vic.
“We keep the animals as natural as possible. We do not castrate or decorate and occasionally buy different bulls to maintain healthy herd genetics.
After identifying a market for organic Dexter beef, Vic approached local butcher Michael O’Neil for a collaboration. “Michael was incredibly helpful and agreed to process our beef for us. He has his own slaughterhouse in town, just three miles from our farm, so that was ideal, ”says Vic. “We made arrangements for me to bring the cattle to Michael and for him to take care of the rest. He has been a true gentleman over the years and continues to do a fantastic job for us.
Vic and Deborah started selling their beef at the Clonakilty Farmers Market and after building up a loyal following they brought some business home. “We started selling the meat on the farm and everything went very well. Our customer base grew and it was clear that our products had a solid good market, ”says Vic.
With their new business going more and more, the couple decided to set up more permanent trade routes and applied for a building permit to construct a multi-purpose building on the farm.
“With the expanding market for our beef and our continued passion for harnessing its full potential, we decided to open our own on-farm restaurant,” says Vic.
With the future in mind, they also decided to start growing organic produce to supply their new restaurant. “The first year we plowed pastures and planted potatoes. We were advised to do this before we start growing other vegetables, as the potatoes break up the soil and reduce unwanted pests, ”says Vic.
Wanting to make their new business as unique as possible, they designed the space with diversity in mind. “Deborah is an artist and art therapist by profession, so we decided to create a space in our new building where we could exhibit and sell her work, as well as those of other local artists. We knew it would add authenticity to the restaurant.
The couple also designed their new business home to include a craft workshop space where they could host various rural craft classes. “Sustainable agriculture has always been at the center of our concerns and we cultivate a few sustainable crops such as willow. We figured a good way to use some of it would be to use it in our new basketry classes.
Vic and Deborah opened their restaurant, Field Kitchen, in June of this year, along with their art gallery and craft space, which are available to rent for small events. They feel their farming business came to life at the right time.
“Our restaurant is spacious and accommodates 128 people with the possibility of expansion. Our outdoor seating area holds the same number and this has been ideal for food service during the pandemic, ”Vic said.
Field Kitchen has more of a unique selling point, as customers can expect a different guest chef to grace kitchen floors each month. “MasterChef Ireland winner Diana Dodog was our guest chef in October and Caitlin Ruth is our guest chef in November. We are very fortunate to have two wonderful chefs on site, Bob Cairns and Simon Kershaw, who create wonderful seasonal dishes for our set menu, ”said Vic.
Vic and Deborah have also expanded the vegetable section of the farm and now grow a wide range of seasonal produce including beets, pumpkins, kale, spinach and squash.
They used these fresh, organic produce, along with their beef Dexter in their restaurant and Vic says it has proven to be popular. “We are now known for our delicious farm-to-plate food. Diversifying our farm to include originality and premium produce has made our farm more viable than we originally imagined.
“It took three years between buying the farm and selling our first Dexter beef”
Farm diversification: Vic Sprake from Camus Farm
What level of start-up costs did you incur to start your business?
The cost of bringing the farm to where it is today is not to be overlooked. There were a lot of abandoned buildings that we had to renovate and there was so much work to be done.
I was fortunate enough to have my UK business for sale to generate funding for the business. The restaurant was then a big investment.
How long did it take you to start the business?
It took three years from buying the farm to selling our first Dexter beef. We bought full heifers, so by the time their offspring was raised and ready, it had been three years.
Was insurance compulsory?
Yes, we have all the usual insurances such as agricultural insurance, product insurance, employer insurance etc.
Are you required to register with a public body?
We are registered with the Health Service Executive and we have our organic license. We use our farm’s well water for the business, so we have annual inspections on it. In addition to the additional requirements of our new business, we still have the regular registration requirements of any farmer, such as herd testing and tagging.
Was a building permit necessary?
Yes, and it was a five year process. Even though our business is small, we still had to follow the same town planning rules that are required for something like a seven story mall. Covid has also delayed things for a year.