The early years of the organic movement in Ireland were dominated by ‘blow–ins’, mostly migrants from England or Europe who wanted to live as close to self–sufficiency as possible. Many were inspired by John Seymour, the acclaimed author of The Complete Book of Self–Sufficiency, then living in Wexford. They organised festivals like The Mustard Seed Gathering where they learned from each other, shared experience and spread their ideas.
Among them was a young Dubliner, a budding horticultural scientist, called John McCormick. He’d already acquired an enthusiastic interest in organic production methods during a placement at one of the Camphill communities and, despite the lack of enthusiasm that he encountered among his peers, John’s path had been set.
He moved North to work within another Camphill community in Kilkeel and, later, as the Farm Manager at the Ulster Folk Museum. Those years built the experience – often learning from his mistakes – that prepared John for the leap of faith that propelled him into his own venture in 1991 – Helen’s Bay Organic Gardens.
John became the first commercial organic vegetable grower in Northern Ireland. He supplied a few restaurants and sold his produce at Bangor’s weekly market for the first two years. Then he started his box scheme. He’d seen them working in Holland and Germany; now he decided to pioneer the model here.
Starting with ten customers, the box scheme has become the backbone of the business, with 330 households now supplied each week. The principle is simple enough – a customer receives a weekly order of fruit and vegetables, based on seasonal availability – in other words, whatever John is harvesting in any particular week, supplemented with organic produce from some partner farms.
John’s passionate commitment to organic farming is at the core of his business. “It’s the food that I wanted to provide for my own children and many of my customers share that desire,” he says. “Organic standards ensure that our produce is healthy and safe, grown without chemicals and pesticides, free from any GM content and, crucially, maintaining a natural, fertile soil. We have to pass a rigorous inspection each year that is our guarantee of organic status.”
John’s customers also value the fact that the produce is local. Of course, it’s not yet possible to grow bananas in Co Down (although, with climate change, who knows what might happen in 50 years?) so some fruit and veg, always organic, is brought in to supplement what is grown in the fields and polytunnels at Helen’s Bay. Over the year, about 65% of the produce is local and John thinks he can get that figure up to 75%.
He’s also keen to take on new customers. Word of mouth has been John’s greatest promotional tool in the past, although he’s no stranger to the newspapers – and the BBC has filmed at his farm more than once – but the quality of the products and the reliability of the service are Helen’s Bay’s most valuable assets and deserve to be more widely shared. If you live in greater Belfast, from Comber to Lisburn to Carrickfergus, you can join the weekly delivery scheme.
On a recent visit to India, John encountered the work of the Morarka Foundation which is converting thousands of hectares of land to organic production, involving some 70,000 farmers in the process. The initiative provided John with some new inspiration; not that he really needed it – John’s a pioneer, always has been. He’s chosen that ‘road less travelled’ because he’s a man of principle, with strong ethical values and an undiminished visionary passion for the job he always wanted. He’s one of Northern Ireland’s most influential champions of sustainable food and will be for years to come.