In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle discovers the benefits of organic oats.
Pat Lalor gets straight to the point. “I did it for the increase in income. And I’m still in it to earn a decent living. I still have to put bread and butter on the table.” We’re chatting about organic farming, and his no-nonsense approach makes me smile.
Pat always knew he would be a farmer. “I was useless at school! I always loved working with my hands, with animals and with machinery, so I was never going to do anything else.” In 1999, he decided to convert Ballard Farm to organic land, in the hopes of increasing his income to better support himself and his family. While his motivation may have been purely mercenary, he didn’t expect the transition to organic farming to make him happier in his working life. “My job satisfaction has increased enormously.”
Conventional (i.e. not organic) farming is very focused on the chemistry of the soil, but organic farming, Pat tells me, is all about the microbiology, and it’s easy to sense the fulfillment he gets from this. “One teaspoon of healthy soil should contain around one billion micro-organisms; there’s a whole invisible world beneath our feet.”
This passion for soil biodiversity has become a driving force in his work and his life. “I have four children, but I consider the soil my fifth child, and so I feed it a diet that is diverse and good for it,” he says proudly. “This includes a mixture of different manures — cow, horse, poultry — to provide a range of nutrients. We also compost the manure before using it so that it’s already begun to decompose. In addition to this, we grow red clover, a legume that provides nitrogen to the soil, and we rely on rotation, too.”
This isn’t just down to personal zeal; the art of maintaining a healthy, productive soil without the use of chemical fertilisers is a challenge unique to organic farming. While strict EU legislation, regular inspections and a whole heap of paperwork are all par for the course, it’s this element that takes serious concentration and dedication on a daily basis. As Pat says, “at the end of the day, it’s just the soil and me”.
It’s not just the actual farmland that benefits from this approach; Pat is keen to let Nature take the wheel where possible across the property. When cutting his hedgerows, Pat leaves a whitethorn or blackthorn bush every 100 metres or so for local birds to nest in and feed from. He also keeps nine small areas of woodland and forestry on the farm, which are beneficial for wildlife and maintaining a healthy ecosystem. His herd of around 100 cattle also benefits from the all-organic landscape, and their organic manure is returned to the soil to start the cycle anew. As a result of his hard work, smart thinking and holistic approach, these methods of maintaining a healthy soil are working wonders for the farm.
The main product at Ballard Farm, however, is Pat’s much-lauded Kilbeggan Organic Oats. Pat is humble when questioned about their quality. “I don’t like to make any claims about the oats, other than that they all come from our farm.” Despite his modesty, this fact in itself is very special — these oats are one of only a few single origin oats on the Irish market.
Pat’s integrity keeps Kilbeggan out of the larger retailers. “We don’t have enough product to supply the larger chain stores, but we’ve also built our business on the uniqueness of our product, and our intention is to remain artisan and support smaller retailers.” He has no interest in expanding, as this would mean having to buy in oats from elsewhere. As it is, he’s busy enough, starting a typical day at around 7am and often not finishing up in the office until 10 or 11 at night. “The team is just myself and my son John, who came home from Australia three years ago and who now runs most of the porridge side of the business.”
You can find Kilbeggan oats in family grocers, fruit and vegetable shops, health food shops, craft butchers, gift shops and online, and they appear on breakfast tables as far away as the US and Canada. “An old babysitter of ours told us she saw Kilbeggan oats in a shop in Boston!” Pat says with wonder. “I never thought my food would make it as far as that.”
“Our customers often tell us that Kilbeggan porridge is very creamy,” he says. “It might sound a bit boring, but my favourite way to eat the porridge is with pure, Irish honey — Ben Colchester’s [of Drummeen Farm] honey is lovely. I’d advise soaking the oats overnight, then bringing to a simmer. Once the porridge has simmered, eat it — don’t leave it sitting around!”
Personally, I like my porridge salty rather than sweet, whether simply with a splash of cream and some sea salt, or with a dollop of natural peanut butter. Indeed, the idea that it should be sweet is quite a modern one; we Irish used to eat porridge at more meals than breakfast, and it would be flavoured with whatever was to hand — often just butter. The simplicity of oats means that they lend themselves well to a range of combinations, and here I’ve added gorgeously deep savoury flavours with plenty of umami, creating a dish that works just as well as a lunch or easy supper as it does for a healthy weekend brunch. Toasting the oats is an optional extra step, but it helps to emphasise their natural nuttiness.
I’m curious as to what’s next for Ballard Farm and Kilbeggan Oats. “It’s mostly just business as usual, but the job is never complete.” Pat says. “I love research and learning and I’m always looking for new ideas. There’s always a better way to do things.” This constant drive for education and innovation means that he’s also interested in diversifying into new lines of oat products; their relatively new Kilbeggan Oat Cookies are doing well.
There’s something symbiotic and pleasing about the links between Pat’s straightforward, honest approach to farming, his pure, rich soil and the simple fare that is Irish porridge, a food that sustained us as a nation for much of our history. It may have been the desire for money that got Ballard Farm where it is today, but it’s clever farming that makes Kilbeggan Oats as good as they are.