Vegetable grower Stephen Sinnott of Food For Humans speaks to Mary O’Brien about farming, flavour and future ambitions.
It’s all about the flavour for Stephen Sinnott, who together with his wife Brigid, practises a blend of permaculture, biological farming and French intensive farming on their once-acre plot in Ballinhassig. When you bite into one of Stephen’s tomatoes, you’ll find out what flavour really is…gorgeous, juicy beef tomatoes or little cherry explosions of taste provide a meal in itself. Whatever the vegetable, Stephen and Brigid are passionate about producing chemical-free and affordable food…packed with flavour.
While it’s a challenge, unafraid of hard work, the couple are improving and growing the farm all the time, trialling different varieties of vegetables in the search for the best flavours.
So how does Stephen grow such great tasting vegetables? “We’re growing on poor soil (clay) for growing vegetables,” says Stephen but while this makes growing difficult the soil is very mineral dense so it produces good tasting vegetables. We also use a lot of compost but I think that mainly it’s down to the varieties we choose.” Stephen – who might be a slight perfectionist – does a lot of research into the best tasting varieties, changing varieties almost every year and reducing it down to only the best.
“We want to be known for flavour above anything else,” he explains. “We grew 12 varieties of cherry tomatoes this year and have reduced it down to three of the best.”
In another lifetime, Stephen was actually a plumber. He didn’t grow up on a farm and reached the age of 25 before ever really thinking about the food on his plate.
“I came across a video on Aquaponics, which initially sparked my interest in vegetable growing,” he explains. “Essentially you take the dirty water from a fish tank, recycle it through gravel, and grow plants in that.” Stephen spent some time in the US, where his interest in sustainable agriculture grew and he started researching it.
Food for Humans farm is split primarily into two parts – a French intensive market garden and a pick-your-own polyculture orchard.
“French intensive market gardening was developed by Parisian market gardeners between 1850 and 1900,” explains Stephen. “They fed the whole of Paris and exported food to England and achieved all this on just six per cent of the land in Paris. This was made possible by their development of intensive growing practices and season extension. They also used so much aged manure and compost in their gardens that they were said to build their own soil; multiple crops were grown in the same area one after the other with no break between and glass was used extensively to protect tender plants and stretch the growing system.”
In a polyculture orchard you avoid placing trees of the same type next to each other to avoid pests and disease.
“It’s not something you do if you’re looking for an easy life but it’s great that we can both work from home with our 17-month-old running around the place. She knows exactly where the strawberry plants are,” says Stephen laughing. “Aside pulling up strawberry plants, she’s actually helping out a bit, following us around and throwing leaves into buckets.”
Food for Humans is growing on an acre but Stephen is hoping to expand in the near future. “We’re looking at moving from raised beds to flat ground and putting up more polytunnels,” he says. I’d like to produce vegetables and fruit year round and am also looking at adding chickens for meat and eggs. There’s a concept in America called Whole Diet CSA – the idea being that one farm can supply a large proportion of you diet; this is something that I’m very interested in.”
Stephen is always looking into innovative new methods to aid in sustainable farming. “I’m researching compost heat recovery at the moment,” he says. “Essentially when you make compost, it produces an awful lot of heat, which can be used to heat things,” he explains. “There’s so much room for innovation in this industry, it’s very interesting.”
Now in its third season, the word is spreading around West Cork about Food for Humans. Stephen supplies three markets; Wilton on Tuesdays, Kinsale on Wednesdays and Bandon on Saturdays. You’ll find his produce in URRU and An Tobairin in Bandon, Rebeccas’s Kitchen in Kilbrittain and Diva Ballinaspittle. He also supplies Bastion and Finn’s Table restaurants in Kinsale.
Stephen grew 43 types of vegetables this season. Going into Autumn and Winter, West Cork food lovers can look forward to a bounty of cabbage, tenderstem broccoli, broccoli, greens, carrots and root veg from Food for Humans. It’s all about the taste!
For more information go to foodforhumans.ie.