“We walk people around the fields and they say, ‘God, I haven’t seen this since I was a child,’” says Rena Blake. “The land feels absolutely overjoyed and abundant at the moment.”
Indeed, when Irish Country Living visits The Barna Way eco-social farm just outside Ballybunion, Co Kerry – which Rena runs with her wife, Lisa Fingleton – it’s hard to scribble down everything we see.
There’s comfrey and borage for the bees. Fields of swaying grasses, buttercups and meadowsweet. Woodbine that tumbles from the ditches and paths of red clover. Orchards that will be heavy with apples, pears and plums come autumn. Beds laid with broad beans and beetroot and polytunnels where strawberries, spuds and salads give way to surprises like grapes. And that’s before you mention the 10,000 native trees recently planted by the pair, their artist studios; or the odd agricultural artefact still in service.
“We’ve a 57-year-old tractor called Molly, she’s older than the two of us,” points out Lisa.
“Just about!” laughs Rena.
North Kerry to New York
Barna is where Rena’s grandmother, Kate Murphy (née Walsh), was reared before she moved into Ballybunion after marrying.
“She might have been the original market gardener in Ballybunion,” says Rena, explaining how her grandmother grew vegetables on her lone acre in town to supply local hotels and caravan parks, as well as keeping poultry, pigs and a cow.
Rena lived with her grandparents as a child, and split her time between town and the home farm. She clearly remembers telling her grandmother at nine that she would love to own Barna one day; but it would take almost 30 years before that dream came true.
While bright and diligent, Rena struggled in school due to dyslexia and at 17, was suspended when she uttered a curse word in frustration when she was unable to read something. That afternoon, she told her grandmother she wanted to go to America. Within the hour, her grandmother had handed her a note and sent her to the post office.
“The note said she was giving me permission to withdraw £50 to take out my passport,” smiles Rena, recalling her grandmother’s support.
“America was the best thing I ever did in my whole entire life because it broadened all my horizons. It was probably the best education that I could have ever got because everything I couldn’t read, I could do.”
Moving to Chicago, then New York, Rena was a nanny for seven years, before she started working as a carpenter. It was also in New York that she began to understand her sexuality, which led to a career change, opening a gay café called The Rising, followed by a pub.
“And then, sold them all to buy here,” she laughs, explaining that the farm came up for sale in 1997 when her granduncle decided to move closer to town.
“I said I’d come home for a year because I had citizenship… and sure I never left!”
Meeting in the fields
Like Rena, Lisa also comes from farming stock: her parents Jim and Eileen Fingleton were beef and cereal farmers in Stradbally, Co Laois, and were self-sufficient as a household. She was always creative and at 12 was teaching art to other children in her mother’s kitchen.
“I even hired an assistant!” she exclaims.
Originally, Lisa planned to study art, but after spending time in France, switched to business and French. “Always passionate about justice and about creativity”, however, her career path took her towards community development work, and at 30, she returned to college to complete a BA in fine art.
“And I met Rena in the final year,” smiles Lisa, who explains that she was attending a summer camp primarily for gay women that Rena had agreed to host on the farm.
“I kept saying, ‘Who is this woman in rural Ireland – this was 20 years ago – who has had the guts to have this massive camp here?’” recalls Lisa; though it was actually the following year that they met properly at a sing-song at the camp.
Rena takes up the story, explaining that she had just come back from her dad’s anniversary mass that evening.
“Someone said, ‘Rena would you like a request?’ and the only thing I could remember is Lisa sang the most amazing song I ever heard. It was an African song called Malaika and I said to Lisa, ‘Will you sing that song?’ and that’s how we started talking really,” she says.
“And it’s funny, because it’s about a poor farmer!” laughs Lisa.
The Barna Way
The couple have been together since 2005. While they both lived in Cork initially – Rena running a gay bar while commuting back and forth to the farm, with Lisa working in socially engaged art – they based themselves at Barna full-time 14 years ago.
The environment was at the forefront of their minds when deciding what to do with Barna. One of the biggest decisions was turning over half of their 20 acres to native woodland, planting 10,000 native trees two years ago in association with Green Belt, which operates a four-year management contract, with an annual premium available for the forest owner for 15 years.
“The hardest decision that I ever made in this land was putting in 10 acres of native woodland because when you do native woodland it’s like planning permission, your land can never come out of trees again and I toyed with that for four years, it drove me demented,” says Rena; but she has no regrets today.
“The trees are taller than us in two years. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Of the remaining 10 acres, 8.5 are in meadow for nature, and the remainder is dedicated to orchards and polytunnels growing vegetables and microgreens. Rena supplies these to outlets like The Marine restaurant in Ballybunion, and also sells at the Ballybunion Community Market in summer, which she co-founded with local grower, Billy Jo O’Connor.
Rena admits that some people believe that this way of farming is “for the birds” and that it’s not commercially viable in the traditional sense.
“But it just pays in other dividends,” she says, explaining that she and Lisa have already hosted events like a dawn chorus walk and biodiversity talks, and that their long-term goal is to develop Barna as a nature-based retreat.
Art and community
Like many farmers, Rena and Lisa have off-farm jobs; but these are intrinsically linked to agriculture.
Rena is a co-ordinator with Kerry Social Farming, providing farming and social inclusion opportunities to people with physical and intellectual disabilities, acquired brain injuries and those engaging with mental health services. She is also a talented photographer, with an eye for nature imagery.
Lisa is also a co-ordinator with a project called Moving On Kerry managed by North East West Kerry Development, which supports women – many from farming backgrounds – to re-enter the workforce, with 300 participants to date.
She balances this with her work as a multimedia artist, which is also embedded in farming. For instance, a 2015 exhibition, Holding True Ground, gave birth to the “30-day local food challenge”, which she runs each September, where people are challenged to eat only food produced in Ireland.
She acknowledges that for most people, sustaining the challenge for 30 days is “impossible”; but there are important lessons learned in the endeavour.
“The feedback people have given to me is that they never look at food in the same way. It gives them a real understanding of how challenging it is for farmers, because they walk into a shop and they see this food that’s not sustainably priced at all,” she says.
Other projects have included “The Sandwich Project” – inspired after Lisa bought a BLT one night and realised it had 45 ingredients – and the “Portlaoise Pizza”, where she made a pizza using only local produce.
“Literally I milked a goat to make a cheese, ground the oats to make the base,” she lists.
Her current role is as the embedded artist with Corca Dhuibhne Inbhunaithe/A Creative Imagining: a project funded by the Creative Ireland Climate Action Fund, where Lisa is working with 10 farmers on the Dingle Peninsula to explore how climate change is affecting on them and investigate solutions, through the prism of art.
She says a common concern is the fear of extreme weather events.
“These terrible storms that come out of nowhere … and suddenly the roof is lifted off your shed, walls are knocked down, severe flooding so that drainage pipes that served grandparents really well no longer serve you,” she says.
The farmers get the opportunity to visit other farms and learn from expert guest speakers about ways to tackle climate challenges in their own yards, or explore ways to diversify.
Ultimately, though, Lisa believes the project is highlighting the need for “clear policy change”.
“They want good policies that are actually protecting the environment and paying farmers to do the right thing,” she surmises. “I think that’s what people are crying out for, is really clear leadership.”
Farming and food advocacy aside, both Rena and Lisa campaigned with Yes Equality before the referendum on same sex marriage in 2015, and married shortly afterwards.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re actually standing at the heart of history,’” recalls Lisa of the ballot count. “I just thought Ireland has voted for love and joy and equality and we’ll never be the same again.”
They believe, however, there is further work to be done to achieve true equality.
“What’s always the barometer for me is how is it for young people coming out in schools and I’m not that convinced that it’s any better. I don’t see a change in education programmes,” says Lisa, who acknowledges that while some schools have good support systems in place, it’s not across the board.
For Rena, meanwhile, there is still a lack of investment in rural Ireland in terms of places to socialise.
“I think there’s a lot of farmers out there,” she says. “It’s very hard to meet somebody if you’re single and you’re over 40 or 50. You just can’t rock up to a pub and most of us are not that computer literate that we want to be checking our apps all the time to see if there’s somebody nice available. And I think that’s what I would love to change, is the sociability of it.”
But their advice to anybody who is feeling isolated or alone is to “reach out” to support organisations.
“There’s a whole other world waiting,” smiles Lisa.