Ireland is often referred to as the “Emerald Isle” because of its characteristically green countryside, and whilst many people around the world would readily associate the colour green with Ireland, a community of professional surfers on Ireland’s Wild West Coast have taken this association a step further.
For many years Fergal Smith travelled the world as a professional free surfer, hunting down heaving slabs with celebrated photographer Mickey Smith and a small crew of equally dedicated heavy-water surfers and bodyboarders from the UK and Ireland. It was the lifestyle that many young surfers aspire to lead, being paid to chase swells and get barrelled, however Fergal began to feel a creeping lack of fulfillment in his international “living out of a boardbag” lifestyle and a growing unease at the carbon footprint that he was creating.
“Growing up on a organic farm I always had a connection to the soil and knew the importance of eating and growing your own food, but it wasn’t until I hurt my knee in Tahiti and had two weeks on a couch to think about how I was living that I came to the realization that I actually want to be a part of a positive change, rather than simply travelling and surfing for my own enjoyment.”
Three years ago Fergal and fellow professional surfers Matt Smith and Mitch Corbett were donated a patch of unused land in the village of Moy, just outside Lahinch, close to some of Ireland’s most celebrated waves. They formed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) co-operative and planted a community garden that anybody can contribute to (time, expertise, etc), and anybody can benefit from (the produce grown is shared out amongst the local community and those who have helped along the way, and skills are shared). The aim is to inform and educate people about food production, be they members of the local community or visiting surfers who have stopped by to lend a hand for a few hours, and hopefully to inspire people to make future decisions with sustainability in mind. Over the past two years the scheme has developed and the Growing project now also farms 2 acres of land on top of a windy hill just outside the village, where they use organic farming practices and endeavour to plough the land using horses when they can, and they have planted in excess of 8000 trees. Last year they grew 86 varieties of fruit and vegetables, including 26 different varieties of potatoes; they grow everything from seed and, where possible, save their own seed for next year’s crop.
“ Everything that we do from now on into the future has to be sustainable, and we are striving to achieve that as best we can”
Farming is a notoriously time consuming vocation, and one that is often done for the love of the land and the lifestyle, rather than for financial gain. It’s a difficult challenge trying to juggle farming and surfing, however Ferg, Matt and Mitch all manage to make time for a few waves when the winds and tides align.
“Surfing is the reason that we all got together in the first place so whenever possible we make time to get in the sea, although it can be a difficult sometimes to strike a good balance. Having volunteers and visitors helping us out means that it’s easier to find those windows for waves and still get everything done on the land.”
And then, this March, Fergal contested the County Clare constituency in the Irish General Election as a candidate for the Green Party.
“Politics was never my intention, but there is a responsibility on us all to be part of the solution, and I will take every step, no matter how challenging, to implement solutions that will safeguard our children’s future,”
A campaign video was released with Fergal speaking directly to the camera, almost uncomfortably close-up, with a background picture of the Irish countryside that moved as though being held up by two helpers out of shot, and which bordered dangerously on inducing sea-sickness. Eyebrows amongst the surf community undoubtedly raised, as we had become used to following Fergal’s progress through his “Growing” video series and various other web edits that were produced by filmmaker friends, and although Fergal didn’t make it into the corridors of power following the general election, that doesn’t mean that his campaign didn’t achieve what it set out to; notably, as with the Growing project, to inspire people.
“One of the most beautiful things that I witnessed during the campaign was when we overheard a small boy in the street say to a friend that he didn’t know that farmers could run for politics. This moment, when we helped to inspire the next generation, was when I knew that it was all worth it”
More than anything else, that is what Fergal, Matt and Mitch are doing; they are using their reach as professional surfers to inspire people to think about their food and how it is produced, and how they too might be able to make a difference to our future. There are too many people on this planet for everyone to live off their own patch of land growing their own food (let alone surfing when there are waves), however in many parts of the world people are lucky enough to have choices over what they buy to feed their families and how that is grown or produced. By showing that it is possible to build a life like this, a few people may be inspired to do something similar but a lot of people might be inspired to simply consider how their food is produced and what they are feeding their families. And, if Ferg’s run for parliament prompts a few more people with an environmental conscience to enter politics (at any level) then they really are turning green into gold and helping to make the world a better place.
Both Fergal Smith and Matt Smith are supported by cold water surf company Finisterre.