London couple’s permaculture business blooms in rural Wexford
Wildabout was established after couple’s jams and chutneys proved a hit with Gorey locals
Fiona and Malcolm Falconer gave up a hectic London lifestyle in search of a different way of life. And, after finding themselves in rural Wexford, they started their organic permaculture business Wildabout.
The couple produce jams, chutneys, relishes and preserves, as well as raw honey, cocktail syrups, salad dressings and pestos with ingredients grown in their permaculture gardens or foraged from the wild.
Mrs Falconer’s background is in documentary film-making. After winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and Design in London, she formed her own television production company specialising in art and history programmes.
“When you finish college, you have this burning ambition to develop your career, then you establish yourself and plateau a bit, get married, have kids but the treadmill keeps going,” Mrs Falconer says.
“I had two nannies minding the kids, I was leaving at 6am and killing myself to get home to kiss the kids goodnight. Then, at weekends, you’d spend a ridiculous amount of money pretending to have a life.”
One night, getting home at 11.30pm, the break came and Mrs Falconer said no more. So she and her husband stopped.
“We were always living in the future and projecting forward, ‘we’ll do this next weekend or that next weekend’,” Mrs Falconer says. “We were never living in the now. And I have found that when you do that, time stands still, you live more and enjoy your life more.”
Her inspiration was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage fame.
“I never had dirt under my finger nails until I was in my 40s but my husband grew up on a small holding in Wales and we were always environmentally aware. So when we made the decision we were going to change our lives, we gave ourselves a year to do it.
“Malcolm, who had been a product designer in engineering, wanted to build a passive house but land in the UK was just so expensive so we decided on Ireland. We stuck a pin in the map and it landed on Gorey. So we put the kids in the car and took a week’s holiday to Gorey.
“We looked at about 15 properties and sites with the estate agent and the last one we looked at we put an offer on before we went home. After seeing it, we drove down a little laneway nearby and came out at a beach and we just said ‘why wouldn’t we’,” Mrs Falconer explains.
This was in 2003, before the height of the boom. The couple had sold their home in London so they were able to build their new home mortgage free.
When they moved over, Mrs Falconer continued to work remotely and her husband left his job to build the house.
“We moved to a field with nothing in it! I was more scared for the kids! We live in a tiny rural community and they couldn’t have been more welcoming but it was about two years before Malcolm could understand what anyone was saying to him!” says Mrs Falconer.
So how did the business, Wildabout, come about?
“Well, we started planting about half an acre with the idea of getting the kids involved in foraging. We just went mad with planting but we tried to plant native fruit hedges so we have nettles, rosehips, plums, white currents, red currents, everything.
“Then, four years later, we had a huge harvest. Malcolm started making jams and chutneys so any time anyone came to the house, they would leave with jams or chutneys or fruit and people started saying to us ‘can I have more?’ or ‘will you make me up a hamper for a gift’ and so we thought, maybe we have something in this,” Mrs Falconer explains.
“But again we took our time to figure out who we are and what we do. What really stoked the passion for me was researching food, our native food, how pesticides and chemicals are destroying our natural environment for food production. We started doing food markets and we found them absolutely brilliant for getting customer feedback as well as engaging with the customers about the ethos behind our products.
“We don’t have a game plan. This business keeps revealing itself to me and I completely believe in what we do,” says Mrs Falconer.
“We are a true organic permaculture farm. The thinking behind permaculture is that we engage with our local economy, the heritage that’s here and tradition, as well as what’s environmentally native to the area. We do everything by hand including washing, peeling and coring the fruit.
“Each batch is cooked in our kitchen and the biggest batch we make is 36 units. We don’t import so when a product is gone, it’s gone and the fruit is out of season.
“Seasons are gone in supermarkets. People can have strawberries at Christmas or clementine’s any time of the year. I remember looking forward to Christmas because of the smell of clementines. That excitement is gone because of the use of pesticides on fruit for supermarkets.”
For Mrs Falconer the keyword is stop.
“We stopped. We took a breath and we assessed where we were at. We have a lot less money but we live a lot more. That’s also the ethos behind the company. People enjoy our food more and, because they do, they end up eating less.”
The couple may have had no background in food production when starting Wildabout, but they had good marketing and communications skills and their products are now sold in 22 SuperValu stores in Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford and they trade in the market in the People’s Park in Dún Laoghaire every Sunday. Aer Lingus also uses the Wildabout nettle syrup in the first-class section of their flights.
“I’ve no interest in being in every supermarket,” says Mrs Falconer. “I’ve no interest in an attitude of ‘pile it high and sell it fast’.
“Irish artisan food is on fire at the moment and we have more demand than we can supply. Why don’t we support artisan producers to remain just that and let Ireland lead the way in artisan-produced foods.”