In 2018, while visiting Dublin, I was introduced to three individuals that embody the concept of hyperlocal food. Discover the story of Martin, Jason, and Shane, aka The Gnomes. See how they’re becoming the change they want to see in their community, with their urban micro-farm on the land of the Dublin City University.
Urban farming entrepreneurs in their twenties, The Gnomes turned the former Dublin City University (DCU) community garden into a productive and profitable micro urban farm.
All their crops are grown pesticide-free. Since 2018, they supply the local community via farmers’ markets and restaurants. With the recent COVID-19 context and public health measures, they managed to pivot their offer by adding online shopping and home delivery options.
The people behind The Gnomes
The Gnomes are made of three friendly and dynamic lads. Their diverse backgrounds and set of skills, as well as their will to bring positive changes for their community, have certainly contributed to creating something fresh for Dublin.
Martin studied IT and Engineering from the ages of 17 to 23. As students often do, he worked odd jobs at that time. Out of curiosity at the age of 21, he began growing his own crops and herbs to cook at home. From there, he just got hooked on gardening.
Jason studied Youth and Community at the Liberties College. In 2014, he found a Community Employment (CE) position in horticulture at the DCU’s Community Garden. Known to be a keen cook, Jason loves using fresh produce for his recipes. In 2015, Jason told his childhood friend Martin that a Community Employment position was available in the DCU’s horticulture section. Martin didn’t hesitate to join.
Shane is Martin’s younger brother. He started bodybuilding at the age of 14. While training with a former Mr. Ireland champion, he developed a strong work ethic and a keen interest in health, nutrition, and holistic lifestyles. With these in mind, Shane began volunteering at the DCU’s Community garden in 2016.
How it all started
Martin explained that the idea of creating an urban micro-farm came from a strong desire to be self-sufficient in a world of ever-increasing dependence in centralization. “Planning to do so economically required a whole new way of thinking,” he said. And with good reason!
Dublin’s real estate market is known to be very competitive. Moreover, there’s a housing crisis. Therefore, finding land in the city to farm on a commercial scale was rather unthinkable.
For The Gnomes, the initial barriers were huge. Knowledge, infrastructure, marketing, financing, and getting the right tools were among some of the first things to think about. When the DCU community garden was abandoned as funds that maintained it dried out, they saw an opportunity.
After negotiating with the university administration, they were able to get a lease for a 10,900 sq.-ft. plot (1/4 acre), with access to water. But that was about it. “The land literally looked like a mini Jurassic Park,” Martin said. A lot needed to be done to make the land cultivable again.
According to Martin, they used The Gnomes name way before they decided to start an urban farm. “We used to make funny videos and called ourselves The Gnomes. Considering they are some mischievous creature’s generally in gardens, it turned out to be a perfect name for our business”, he said.
The Gnomes started to realize the potential of their venture from reading about other projects. “Before starting, we were unaware of a lot of the big names in this field, such as Curtis Stone, Jean-Martin Fortier, Elliot Coleman, and Richard Perkins,” Martin said. “But when we did learn about them, we got their books,” he added.
The Gnomes began putting into practice what they read and combined it with their own experience. Nonetheless, they had to shape their own style. To do so, they had to generate measurable results of their own. “As no two farms are alike, neither are the climates. To build a new type of farm in Ireland we needed all the raw data,” Martin said. “The books were partly effective for us,” he added.
Martin explained that without their sense of humour, hard work and naivety when they started, they wouldn’t have gotten through. “Our ignorance on a lot of aspects was some kind of bliss,” he said. “As time passed, it helped us realize what we needed to focus on to succeed,” he added.
Bio-intensive agriculture is an organic agricultural system that focuses on achieving maximum yields from a minimum area of land, while simultaneously increasing biodiversity and sustaining the fertility of the soil. The goal of the method is long term sustainability on a closed system basis. It is particularly effective for backyard gardeners and smallholder farmers in developing countries, and also has been used successfully on small-scale commercial farms.Wikipedia
Here are a few well known bio-intensive agriculture resources and examples:
- John Jeavons
- Curtis Stones, The Urban Farmer
- Jean-Martin Fortier, The Market Gardener
- Eliot Coleman, Four Season Farm
- Richard Perkins, Ridgedale Permaculture
- Jodi Roebuck and Tanya Mercer, The Roebuck Farm
The business model
Martin, being the analytical mind of the group from his IT background, drafted spreadsheets to gather data. He used them to work out the financial expectations of each crop. This information became the bedrock of their success, which they still feel they are to achieve.
Data helped us to make informed business decisions and optimize each sq.-ft. that we farm. – Martin
To optimize yields and revenues, The Gnomes specialized in quick-grown, high-value crops. Here are some of the 20+ crops grown on site:
- A wide selection of leafy greens and herbs
- Green beans
- Baby turnips
- Microgreens (their latest addition)
“The exact numbers on yields and revenues per sq.-ft. is commercially sensitive information and not to share at this point,” said Martin. “But as our experience grows the numbers grow as well,” he added.
Before trying any new ways to increase yields per sq.-ft., The Gnomes feel like there is still room for growth with the bio-intensive method. “We are still going through the motions of reaching the peak of how much each of the crops can do,” Martin said.
The business model implemented by The Gnomes, supported by their bio-intensive farming approach, gave a second life to the former DCU community garden.
Our approach is low-tech, but effective. – Martin
“Our main strength is our teamwork, and it came naturally early on,” Martin said. “We each possessed different skills. We complemented each other, and it helped remove a lot of the initial emotional burden that would crush a new would-be individual farmer,” he specified. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, products were sold to local businesses and people in the neighborhood at their DCU Glasnevin Campus Stall.
Below, a short documentary about the Gnomes’ story, shot and edited by Finn Richards.
Urban farming, COVID-19 and Public health measures
Martin explained that the implementation of COVID-19 regulations was of the common-sense variety. “We weren’t subject to a lot of the recommendations as we were relatively isolated in the garden away from large crowds,” he said. Nevertheless, he added that they have taken all the necessary steps to ensure compliance with public health regulations/recommendations to limit the spread.
Without this move, we would have failed. – Martin
For The Gnomes, the hard part was pivoting their business from selling at the DCU Glasnevin campus stall to start selling online and organizing home delivery. They achieved this in less than a week. They opened a Shopify online store and got a delivery routes app installed. Martin explained that the marketing channels to promote their new offer were social media (Facebook, Instagram) and emails. “Without this move, we would have failed,” he said.
Besides COVID-19, it seems like e-commerce was just a matter of time for The Gnomes. Already in 2018, during my visit at their micro-farm with Andrew Douglas, we were discussing e-commerce solutions and possibilities for urban agriculture in Dublin. Before the pandemic, buying or selling fresh produce online was something silly for many, farmers included, mostly because they didn’t experience anything compelling enough to give it a try. It turned out that the context and constraints caused by the pandemic became a powerful incentive.
“Of course, the situation is creating opportunities in our line of work,” Martin said. “They are tantalizingly attractive, but you must be willing to do the work,” he added.
When discussing about the future, Martin explained that The Gnomes in 5 years could take many forms. “From experience it is best to let the market, workload required and lifestyle dictate the ever upgrading version of The Gnomes,” he said. “It is hard to tell what that might look like, but once the bases are covered I’m sure it will be exciting” he concluded.
Although The Gnomes’ approach remains pretty advanced and unique in Dublin, their success, present and future, is certainly on track to inspire others from their generation to become urban farming entrepreneurs.
Do you have an inspiring urban agriculture story to tell or innovative ideas to share? Contact us or leave a comment below!