Bad time for the Wexford berries
'IT'S ONE dull day after another - I never saw it as bad for so long,' lamented Jimmy Kearns last week as he bemoaned yet another dull day.
He and his colleagues in the soft fruit business have become caught up in a miserable combination of poor crops and dismal prices that could put some of them out of business.
To make matters worse, the public has deserted their summer treats in the absence of any meaningful summer sun.
'People have stopped buying fruit and started buying soup instead,' observes Teagasc specialist Eamonn Kehoe, based at Johnstown Castle. ' The last thing people think of is strawberries.' Consumers have reverted to a winter diet, as befits the climate.
Eamonn traces the sorry cycle back to the March, when Wexford enjoyed the unseasonably high temperatures of a premature summer. Strawberry plants perked up and burst into early flower, only for the thermometer to drop so low that the bees scarcely bothered to emerge from their hives to carry out the job of pollination.
A chilly May has been followed by deluge after deluge since, leaving the producers with berries that are often misshapen and prone to attacks of mould. The volume of the main crop is back 30 to 40 per cent and it has limped to ripeness almost three weeks later than usual.
The result of the delayed development is that the field strawberries were finally been ready to eat at the same time as the fruit grown under grass.
Meanwhile, rivals in Britain and Holland have been experiencing similar problems, leading to a glut and calamitously low prices that fall short of covering the cost of production.
Jimmy Kearns admits that the situation was so bad recently that he and his workers left 100,000 plants unpicked while skiploads of unwanted fruit have been going out of his yard. Scientific advances have extended the season, which used to cover a few weeks of June and July into November for specialist commercial farmers. Returns from the late crops will not cover the losses, he reckons.
'We will never make this up,' says Jimmy Kearns. ' We won't let it depress us but it has been desperate and the next few months will not pull us out of the fire.'
Given the recession, the option of jacking up the charge for out-of-season fruit will not wash with cost conscious consumers. 'Increase the price and you won't sell it. High prices for late fruit