How ecology on the farm can lead to agritourism: the passion of the lamb at the loom project is ready for visitors to turn farm products into art
Sophie Nicol has found a way to combine her passion for ecology with her love of agriculture and to make a living from it.
The environmental scientist transformed an abandoned farm near Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow into a lush and diverse farm where she breeds rare breed sheep and Connemara ponies.
“When my mother, Lucy, bought this farm 22 years ago, it was vacant and dilapidated,” says Sophie, who continues the family tradition of female-led agriculture.
“She started raising Texel and Suffolk sheep and native ponies and that’s what we’ve been raising all my life.”
When her mother retired in 2019, Sophie quit her job as an environmental scientist and conservationist and took over the farm full time.
“I’ve always had a deep love for agriculture and nature in general, so when mom decided to retire, I wanted to continue running the farm,” she says.
“I knew I had to make some changes, however, if I wanted to be able to quit my job and support my family on the farm. “
Sophie says the farm was not large enough to increase the number of stocks to a scale that would ensure viability, so she had to think of an alternative.
“I have always liked animals of rare breeds, so I researched them and encountered Zwartble sheep. Besides being visually captivating, they also have an array of appealing attributes, ”explains Sophie.
“They generate a higher profit in the sheep market and they are extremely placid and friendly. I had this idea that one day I would like to welcome visitors to our farm, so with the Zwartbles’ temperament, I knew they would be ideal if I ever did.
Sophie traded the Texels and Suffolks for a new herd of pedigree Zwartbles and never looked back. She bought her own purebred Zwartble ram and started raising her own herd since last year.
“This is a hardy breed that requires little maintenance and is ideal for our land and our climate,” she says. “We’re high in the mountains, which suits them.
“It’s quite cold here, however we choose to do late lambings, in March. In this way, it is likely that we have overcome the worst of times before the lambs were born.
Sophie also makes good use of the wool from her Zwartbles, processing it herself and using it to create farm crafts.
“When the sheep are sheared, I save the wool for felting. I clean it roughly first, then I wash it several times with rainwater before drying it, ”she explains.
“I then card it using a hand carder, so the fibers go one way. Then it is ready for felting.
Sophie’s passion for horses is also passed down from her mother, and she now breeds her own Connemara ponies as well as a few Irish sport horses.
“I’ve always kept a few horses and brought them in, but when I took over mom’s farm I really got bigger,” she says.
She uses “natural” riding techniques as well as traditional techniques.
“Natural riding is all about reading the body language of the horses while using your own to communicate with the horse,” she says.
“It’s less about commanding the animal than establishing a relationship with it. In this way, the horse gains confidence and becomes engaging and cooperative with humans.
“I find they become easy to manage and continue to have successful careers.”
The market for horses and ponies being quite good, Sophie feels that she has extended her line at the right time.
“When you rise from a good stock, the market is always there. The pandemic has not harmed the horse market at all and the increase in the number has been a good way to diversify ourselves further, ”she said.
Sustainability has always been a key concept for Sophie, who started using regenerative farming practices when she took over as manager of Windrush Farm.
“Through my studies and my work, I learned a lot about regeneration and leaving the earth in better condition than you found it,” she says.
“Since then, we’ve dedicated 11 acres to nature and wildlife where we’ve planted thousands of trees, hedges, heather and small flowers. This creates a natural habitat for bees, butterflies and birds.
“We also have a bog and a bog pond and we manage these lands as little as possible. As the old saying goes, nature takes care of itself.
Sophie has planted a diverse crop of willows, adding new varieties every year.
“I have a wide variety of willows of all colors and sizes,” explains Sophie. “I sell a small amount to local artisans and basket makers, which I plan to continue doing on a larger scale in the near future.
With so many aspects on her farm, Sophie has decided to embark on the agrotourism sector and has just obtained a building permit for a “class” immersed in nature at the heart of her farm, where she will animate many craft workshops. and agricultural education courses.
“I’ve always been passionate about showing that you don’t have to be from an agricultural background or be interested in traditional agriculture to be a farmer,” she says.
“There are so many different ways to operate your farm and I want people to know this and experience some of these avenues.
“I will run classes where visitors can come and take something from the farm and turn it into an art.
“For example, we’ll use sheep’s wool to make 3D felts, and we’ll use willow for basketwork. People can come and meet the animals and experience life on a regenerative farm.
Sophie also makes her own jewelry from recycled silver and will also run jewelry making classes.
Windrush Farm classes will be held for all ages starting early next year.
Sophie says she wants her farm to be a place where people can come to disconnect, to listen to nature.
“I want to show what our farm, like many others, has to offer. I also want to educate people that, contrary to popular belief, agriculture can be both sustainable and profitable, ”she says.
Q&A: “It took over a year to transition the livestock and write a good business plan for agrotourism”
What are the start-up costs that you incurred to start your business?
So far, it has taken € 20,000, not counting what it will cost to build the classrooms.
How long did it take to start the business?
It took over a year to transition the livestock and write a good agri-tourism business plan.
Was financing readily available from banks?
I have used my own savings and have a private investor for the business side of agritourism.
Are there any grants available?
Unfortunately, I ran out of time on a few available grants. LEADER offers excellent grants that would have really benefited me.
Did you find any support organizations or agencies particularly useful for getting advice?
Yes, I have found our local corporate office to be of particular assistance. I also found Teagasc and Wicklow Partnership excellent for advice.
Do you need a specific license or do you need to register with an organization?
Yes, I had to get a building permit for the Wicklow County Council’s classroom and agritourism business.
I am delighted that this is now approved and that development begins in time for our opening early next year.
Was insurance compulsory?
Yes, we have insurance through FBD for all aspects of the farm.