By Sam Demas
As I approached the Lough Avalla trailhead on Green Farm Road, Harry stopped his truck and greeted me with a friendly smile. We chatted a bit, and I explained that I hoped to talk with him after walking the trail. I was interested in his approach to farming, and about how hosting a National Looped Trail and being part of Ireland’s Walks Scheme fit into his vision of farming. We hit it off immediately and quickly arranged to meet the next day when he had a little spare time. Before driving on, he told me to be sure to check out the Fairy Ring, and pointed out the direction.
I’d been eagerly anticipating this classic Burren hike for weeks, and was delighted to have met this legendary farmer in my first few minutes on his farm. And was thrilled to have found him so warm and welcoming!
The Lough Avalla trail is known as one of the most beautiful in Ireland, and he and his family run a lovely tea room for the many walkers who visit. The next day we walked around the farm, sipped tea and talked until he had to get back to work on the farm. Harry is a hard-working, wise and humane farmer who cares about the land and about people. I found his approach to the trail, and to life and farming, inspirational and exemplary in every way. Here is a bit of what I learned in our conversation.
Traditional Family Livestock Farming in the Burren
Growing up on a farm in the Netherlands, Harry spent a year on livestock farms in the USA as a youth. He always wanted to be a “traditional farmer”, but soon learned that was very hard to do in his home country. In 1971 he moved to Ireland, where old-fashioned farming still survived in some areas. In about 1998 he and his wife Maria bought Lough Avalla Farm, in a spectacular location in the middle of the Burren National Park.
Harry’s approach to farming is to first understand the traditional farming techniques of the area. He gradually comes to understand how and why they came to be and to honor the common sense in them. He also to engages daily with the soils, plants, animals and natural world of his farm. Through these practices of deep learning and observation, he evolves a set of farming practices finely tuned to the land, the crops and the livestock. He sees carrying on with the ancient transhumance practice of uplands winter grazing (aka winterage, the reverse of normal transhumance) on the rough limestone grasslands as a key to maintaining the unique biodiversity of his farm and the region. Not surprisingly, he is a member of the remarkable Burren Life Programme, which works with farmers to support high nature-value farming and conservation practices.
Thoughtfully managed permanent grasslands and grazing are a very efficient method of food production. Harry points out that on a small percentage of the earth’s surface is tillable; not enough to feed the planet. He believes livestock are an essential component of the food system. Livestock can utilize much of the non-tillable land, such as is prevalent in the Burren.
The whole Jeuken family is involved in this diversified farming enterprise. They raise white-belted Galloway cows, goats, donkeys and sheep. And they make and sell milk, yogurt, meat and cheese (one of the few farms in Ireland producing sheep cheeses). The neatly tended kitchen garden is productive, and the tea room features a range of delicious home-baked goods.
The five grown children, aged 18 – 26, are all involved in the farm. I only met one: Melissa, who tends the goats (80 kids were born on the farm this year!) and sheep and makes cheeses. Most of the kids are now at university. The next generation is bringing to the farm the knowledge they are gaining — at school and on the farm — in animal husbandry, dairy science, soil science, horticulture, ecology, forestry, horticulture, and baking. Wow, what a wealth of knowledge, and love, is being poured into this family farm!
Farming as a Way of Life
Harry’s philosophy is based on the view that farming is a way of life, not a “profession”. With so much information available and so many new agricultural technologies, the main thing is to know what you value and what you will cherish and nurture. And to know what to let go of. He doesn’t have sheep dogs, choosing instead to walk and run and stay physically strong by herding the sheep without them. He minimizes the use of machinery. For Harry, its all about integrating farming into how you live your life, living in tune with nature and with natural processes, and about the four “riches”:
- a place to call home;
- a job which makes you feel good and provides meaningful work;
- a healthy lifestyle, good food for our brains and bodies;
- and believing in something bigger than yourself. For Harry this involves religion and nature.
As we talked, Harry added to the list of riches: human connection. Meaningful interaction with people is another of his keys to the good life.
The Trail as a Way of Sharing
The trail adds a social dimension to the farm enterprise. For Harry, the trail is a way of sharing the blessing the family has in living in this magical landscape. It connects people to the land. The experience of walking on this spectacular landscape awakens a sense of beauty and good in visitors, and Harry believes that this can affect their behavior. He believes in the goodness of people. While there are occasional problems with walkers bring dogs (not allowed!) and worrying sheep, overall opening their land to visitors has been a very positive experience and they have met many wonderful, down-to-earth people. The tea room has become a gathering place for walkers from all over the world, a way of bringing the world to this remote farm!
It was in 2011 that the Clare County Council, through its Rural Recreation Officer, asked the Jeuken family if they would be willing to have a looped walk on their land. They agreed and signed up with the Walks Scheme, which pays farmers for maintaining trails that go through their land. The County provided materials and modest funding for trail work, and the family set to work laying out a fabulous, well-marked, well-maintained trail. No surprise: the loving care that characterizes the work on their farm is evident in the trail work as well. The fences and stiles are carefully hand-made of hazel and well maintained. The fences and stone walls are in excellent repair. The ingenious systems for gathering water for livestock are on full view. Harry has hazel walking sticks available for folks to use.
One of the many National Looped Walks in Ireland, this trail offers both glimpses of some of the best views in the Burren and of traditional farm practices.
“Magical” is the word often used to describe this 6 km trail that goes around the farm. It takes most people 2.5 – 3.5 hours to walk with enjoyment. Following are some brief observations; but its an experience for which words cannot do justice. To begin, I recommend proceeding a bit beyond the trailhead gate to a second hazel gate, which opens onto a short path up a hill to an amazing, fairy ring, or fort, with trees and rocks draped in gleaming green moss. This is a good place to sit and meditate on all that is good in the world, and to reflect on the hundreds of generations of folk who lived on and cared for this land from the Celtic and early Christian times to the present.
Returning to the trailhead, the path quickly leads to a holy well, equipped with drinking glasses and festooned with offerings. The path proceeds through hazel woods up to a classic limestone (karst) heavily fissured pavement characteristic of the Burren. This leads up to a plateau with wonderful views in all directions, from the steep cliffs, to Mullaghmore, and to Lough Gealain in the National Park, which is partly a turlough. Walking beneath the cliffs and above the farm one takes in the Burren landscape, then circles back down to the delightful Lough Avalla, equipped with a lovely dock that tempts the swimmer. At the end of the circuit the trail can be taken to the tea house, or back to the Green Road that leads to Mullaghmore crossing, where people with cars park them.
The Burren is lucky to have such a wonderful farm family sharing its bounty with walkers in the form of an outstanding trail. A magical place preserved by a wise farmer and good citizen lovingly tending this house, livestock and land!