Monday 18 December 2017

A brand to be proud of

Strawberry fields forever? Not quite. The strawberry is now synonymous with Wexford but a function at a farm in Clonroche served up a reminder that the fruit has not been a staple of Model horticulture for much more than 70 years. And, with most of the plants now reared under cover of some sort, strawberries in fields have become a quaint old-fashioned notion.

The occasion was a party to mark the opening of the 2014 harvest at the Murphy family's Borovalley holding at Ballymackessy. Paddy Murphy, his wife Bridget, and their children Brídín and Murt pulled out all the stops to turn their shed into a venue fit to receive, not only friends and neighbours, but also a couple of Ministers of State.

Lorcan Dunne was on hand to act as master of ceremonies, welcoming Chief Whip Paul Kehoe and his Tipperary-based colleague in government Tom Hayes, who has responsibility for Agriculture and Food. And Lorcan had certainly done his homework.

His research revealed that commercial strawberry growing was practically unheard of in Ireland until the first initiative was taken, not in Wexford at all, but in North County Dublin.

Up to 1932, anyone in Ireland who wanted to enjoy the fruit had a choice between growing their own in the garden and eating English produce.

It was only when the flow of imports was interrupted by World War Two that Dan O'Gorman and several other pioneers began to experiment with this unusual crop in the Adamstown, Clonroche and Bree area.

By 1946, according to the official statistics, they had three hectares under cultivation by 1946 – barely sufficient area for a couple of football pitches.

It was only after the arrival of jam-makers Robertson's, in 1956, seeking suppliers of raw material for their jams that the business took on a more serious hue, and Chivers were not far behind.

As a result, the hectarage had increased by a factor of 100 by 1960 and the era of the smallholder devoting a patch of ground to a lucrative cash crop was under way.

That strictly seasonal activity, not so very long ago, with trailers queuing up at the Chivers depot on the Prom in Enniscorthy to deliver their summer berries, was a world away from the high tech industry which is the current soft fruit industry as practised in places such as Borovalley. The word industry is carefully chosen.

The Murphys devote a mere ten acres (about four hectares) to their speciality but make high yield use of every square inch.

The notion of leaving plants exposed to the elements is laughed at down Ballymackessy way. Instead, cultivation is carried either under glass, in polytunnels or in cutely named cosy-tunnels.

And these pampered specimens, which arrive by special order from Holland, are not required to dip their roots into the common earth. Instead, they are grown at eye level in troughs and cared for by computer controlled hydroponics. Roughly translated, hydroponics means that all the nutrients needed are delivered by pipes carrying dissolved in water. It takes as little as six weeks to go from seedling to fruiting in such idyllic circumstances. Such methods have assisted in extending the season from now to the end of October, and they are reliable enough to make Dunnes Stores the number one customer at Borovalley.

Success is down to a blend of experience and high technology, on to which has been grafted some ingenious traditional practices.

For instance, the plants need pollenators – so hives of specially bred bees are located in the tunnels. Colonies of mites are encouraged to ensure that aphids (greedy greenfly) are not permitted to become a problem.

Among the guests at the party on Thursday was Teagasc soft fruit adviser Eamonn Kehoe who keeps growers all over Ireland up-to-date on all the latest developments.

His is an elite clientele. While there are hundreds of grain growers and hundreds of cattle farms in Wexford, there are fewer than 30 truly commercial strawberry growers in the county.

They are engaged in a business which has undergone huge expansion with the switch from supplying fruit for processing to growing fruit for dessert.

Along with colleagues/rivals in Dublin and Meath, their industry is worth maybe €37 million annually, up from a paltry €6 million in the year 2000. With hot competition from abroad, the stakes are high.

Roadside stall sales help to promote the Wexford brand but the truly big business is in the supermarket deals, exposing those involved to the vagaries of international trad. Eamonn Kehoe reports that Rabo Bank in Holland recently waded into horticulture waded into horticulture.

Finding themselves in control of 100 acres of glasshouses in the Netherlands, the Dutch bankers demanded that the tomatoes and peppers which used to be grown must be ripped out and replaced with strawberries. The result has been a flood of cheap fruit on a scale capable of throwing the market into disarray.

The local growers have a brand to be proud of. The next time, dear reader, that you go to purchase a punnet your local supermarket take time to check the label and buy the best.

Eat Wexford.

Wexford People

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