Just 1% of all farms in Ireland grow veg - why so little?

In a new six-part series, food writer KATE RYAN interviews vegetable growers in Cork. Today she asks how do you solve a problem like growing vegetables in Ireland?
Just 1% of all farms in Ireland grow veg - why so little?

Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans with his seed potatoes. Picture Denis Boyle

“EAT food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Seven words that make up one of the most famous quotes in food writing of modern times. They come from the pen of Michael Pollan, a U.S food writer, in his book, Food Rules.

It’s an idea not for any one dietary framework against another, but it is for inclusion of more plants in our diet, specifically vegetables. It is simple, and yet not simple.

Simple in that it is easy, once decided, to eat more plants. A quick trip to any supermarket provides an array of vegetables, fruits, and herbs to choose from.

Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans with staff members Sean Sheehan and Ozen French. Picture Denis Boyle
Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans with staff members Sean Sheehan and Ozen French. Picture Denis Boyle

Not simple when considering where it all comes from, because of all the farms in Ireland, just 1% grow vegetables.

Most fruit and vegetables we consume are imported, despite Ireland having a climate that is well suited to growing. 

On top of this, a range of technologies from the basic (polytunnels) to high-tech (aquaponics) enable growers to extend growing seasons or manipulate growing environments to ensure a greater availability and variety of crops than allowed for with traditional field-grown methods.

Advances in knowledge and understanding in soil health and growing techniques, from organic and chemical-free to no-dig and permacultur,e as well as conventional growing methods, are creating resilience literally from the ground up for growing crops that are adaptable to climate change and nutritionally dense.

Growers can be small and productive, with just half an acre, or large and intensive with 50 acres under cultivation.

Since Pollan scribed his words, there has been a greater acceptance and appreciation of the importance of eating more vegetables daily, and yet so little land is used to cultivate Irish-grown vegetables. Why?

In early February, a third-generation Navan-based vegetable grower, Cahal Lenehan of JCR Lenehan, a leading supplier of brussels sprouts and cabbage to retail, announced their closure. The farm was no longer financially viable. Unsurprising, when bags of sprouts are sold for 49c, or less. Such a price doesn’t cover the cost to the farmer to produce a crop and keep the farm viable, yet price- slashing decisions are retailer-driven, with the grower soaking up any loss. With inputs, such as seed and feed, seeing incredible rates of price inflation, there is little capacity for soaking up. Yet access to low-cost fruit and vegetables makes the difference of affordability to many, especially in the context of the current cost of living crisis.

Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans with staff members Yola Holden and Noreen Dalton. Picture Denis Boyle
Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans with staff members Yola Holden and Noreen Dalton. Picture Denis Boyle

The situation gets a little worse for organic growers. Only 2% of all land under production for tillage and crops is certified organic, way behind the EU average of 7.5% and further still behind the European ‘Green Deal’ goal of 25% of land under organic production by 2030.

Fruit Hill Farm is Ireland’s longest established supplier of organic supplies and equipment to both commercial and hobbyist gardeners, and, as a certified organic business itself, offer advice to growers from start-up and beyond.

Based near Bantry, Fruit Hill Farm started in 1988 as one of Ireland’s first organic market gardens, founded by Manfred Wendel. In 1993, the business was reimagined as an organic supplier. After years working side by side with Manfred, Elmer Koomans became Managing Director after Manfred’s retirement in 2021.

I asked Elmer why there isn’t more land under organic crop cultivation in Ireland?

“In horticulture, a lot of growers want to work as naturally and organically as possible but don’t feel it’s necessary to go for certification; they have their markets and outlets, and they don’t need certification, or might feel it restricts them in some way. 

"I think locally grown and fresh already for a lot of people is important; customers meet the grower; they trust that person and they like the flavour of the produce and how it looks.”

Growers looking to transition into organics can avail of Government subsidies but, says Elmer, this doesn’t work for all.

Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans. French. Picture Denis Boyle
Pictured at Fruit Hill Farm, Colomane, Bantry, Cork was Elmer Koomans. French. Picture Denis Boyle

“For a small grower with an organic horticulture set up, they don’t have to wait for the scheme to open because it’s not really worth it to them for the few hundred euros they would get for a small holding. But for a tillage farmer with many acres of land, there is a two-year wait known as the conversion period. Those two years are the most difficult because you can’t sell your crop as organic, selling at conventional prices means tillage farmers really need that support from the government so that’s why they wait until the scheme opens up.”

Although the subsidies don’t suit everyone, they are important, says Elmer, because they incentivise farmers to transition organic. In Ireland in 2020, there was a 38% increase in the sales of organic fruit and vegetables – the demand is there, and increasing, but the problem persists of not enough being grown in Ireland and not enough of it organically grown.

“In the winter, everything is imported, particularly vegetables like courgettes and tomatoes, but that creates a ready market for the summer where imported crops are replaced by Irish grown. There needs to be a relationship between growers a nd retailers: there needs to be a clear sign from growers that they will have courgettes in two weeks’ time so the retailer can stop importing.

“But some retailers are very price sensitive and would rather import a courgette for €1 rather than pay €2 for an Irish-grown one. When I had my shop and wholesale business, I would still prefer to buy the Irish produce because the quality is fresher, and I would like to give that grower a little bit more to support them and take a little cut on the margin.

“It takes attitude; it’s not all about money, it’s about supporting Irish horticulture. But then if there’s not enough supply, that’s annoying for wholesalers, so you need to have some serious growers who can commit themselves to certain amounts at certain times of the year.”

But it’s not all about the veggies. Year-on-year, more farmers are looking to incorporate organic principles in relation to grass, or sward, management for dairy and beef cattle.

“There’s definitely a trend with dairy farmers to go for multi-species grass mixes, quite a few conventional farmers are convinced those pastures are better for their cattle; they can see it in their milk cheque: their milk cheque gets bigger when those cows go on those pastures. General health of cows improves on mixed pasture sward, and there is a greater return as it can last, properly managed, for 10-15 years as opposed to 4-6 years for monocrop perennial rye grass.

“Not all will go organic, for some it’s a step too far, they’ll stay conventional but be as organic as possible because they feel it’s better for their cows and their land; their grass will grow easier and it’s not as dependent on inputs.

“Change won’t happen overnight; the prospect of reducing stock levels to counter a bit of a dip in production for the first few years is fearful for some. But production doesn’t always mean less margin – turnover is not everything, what’s important is what’s left at the end of it.

“In principle, the organic certification scheme works very well, and I think it is important that Government support is there to incentivise farmers. Ireland is only at 2% organic production – the lowest in Europe - so there’s a lot of growing that can be done.

“Even if you don’t want to talk about climate change, the general environment of lakes, waterways, soil, and healthy produce is important – especially if Ireland wants to keep its Origin Green image Bord Bia promotes across the world. We need to be green and not pretend to be green.”

The biggest outlay for growing vegetables is land. The second biggest is infrastructure.

“The certification process is not expensive, but the infrastructure is. A good polytunnel can cost €10,000; it can easily cost up to €50,000 to set up as a commercial horticulturalist,” says Elmer.

One possible solution to fill the gap between demand for Irish-grown produce, organic or not, and supply is to GIY.

“On a small scale, it’s nice to grow a few things, and gain respect for those who grow commercially because you realise how difficult it can be! A hundred square metre garden can easily provide a family of four with all vegetables they need for a year, (not including potatoes). If you really think about your garden, arrange it well and have a good succession of things.

“But never mind the food! It’s good to be out there and have hands in the soil; pottering away in the garden is a good pastime for a lot of people. The growing and food is one satisfaction; bringing it into the kitchen, cooking and eating it gives another level of satisfaction.

“You don’t have to be self-sufficient, just to be respectful of what is out there and to be in touch with the seasons. It’s not very often financially better to grow your own, but it’s not all about the money – it’s about the many ways it gives satisfaction to people.”

Fruit Hill Farm operates as a supplier of seed potatoes, onion sets, seeds and bulbs, compost and substrates, fertilisers, protection materials and garden equipment for private and commercial growers too. A staff of 16 employees, most of whom are keen gardeners and growers themselves – Elmer included – means everything that makes it onto the webshop has been trialled and tested by them.

“It’s not an official thing,” says Elmer; “we try them out so we can be enthusiastic about something or know if something is not so great. It’s only by using things yourself that you can talk enthusiastically with people.”

See www.fruithillfarm.com for more.

Next week, Kate talks to Waterfall Farms, the small veg farm with a big heart.

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