Farm Ireland
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Saturday 10 December 2016

Giving gardeners Allot to dig with

With the rebirth of 'grow your own' enthusiasm, one Meath man has given people patches to be creative, writes Barry McCann

Barry McCann

Published 30/11/2010 | 12:55

Paddy Gorman and son Mark assess some plants at the family allotment business in Kilmessan, Co Meath
Paddy Gorman and son Mark assess some plants at the family allotment business in Kilmessan, Co Meath
Paddy converted 1.5ac of his holding into allotments

Are you the type of person who enjoys preparing meals using food that was produced in an environmentally and sustainable manner as opposed to using ingredients transported half way around the globe before reaching your kitchen table?

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If the answer to this question is yes, then maybe you are one of the growing number of people who has taken the plunge and decided to take on the challenge of an allotment.

For Meath land owner Paddy Gorman, the rebirth of the 'grow your own' league provided a new business opportunity.

Paddy and his wife, Claire, opted to cash in on the renewed interest in gardening by converting a section of their Meath farm into allotments.

The Gormans were among the first farm families in Meath to see the potential of leasing out land to provide ground for the gardening plots. He diversified part of his farming enterprise and set up 46 allotments on a 1.5ac block.

Thirty-six allotments are rented out and the remaining 10 plots are used for growing vegetables that Paddy sells directly from his home in Crerogue, Kilmessan.

Apart from minding his two young children, Ruth and Mark, he also runs a small farm shop selling fresh vegetables and seedlings, while also selling hanging baskets and potted plants.

Paddy's other agricultural enterprises consist of rearing 20-30 calves to beef on a 25ac section of grassland. In addition, he has 10ac of forestry.

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Getting started

After visiting several allotment units, Paddy came to the conclusion that he could provide a similar service for people living in his own part of the Royal County.

After researching English websites, planning his allotments, implementing his marketing campaign and constructing a car park, the complex was officially opened in March last year and trades as 'Big Tree Allotments'.

Finances

It cost Paddy €160 an allotment to create the 108m plots. This includes the fencing of the divisions and plumbing a tap into each allotment. In order to manage cash flow and to keep the project on track, he offered a discounted rate of €180/allotment for the first year. This rate was available to those who paid for their allotments in advance. This proved to be successful, with 20 new gardeners signing up for the deal.

Marketing process

Paddy's first form of marketing was simple. He erected several signs on the local main roads. Within a fortnight, he received 150 enquiries although, as Paddy discovered, there is a major difference between interested parties and those willing to part with cash.

Clients and services

Those taking the allotments are a diverse group, ranging in age from 23 to 70. He captured clients from the three large towns in Meath -- Navan, Dunsaughlin and Trim -- and also tapped into the Dublin market. Apart from growing fresh vegetables, Paddy has found that many of his customers value the time spent at the allotment as an enjoyable opportunity to get a break from the city as much as anything else.

"Other customers enjoy the experience of having their own space, freedom and being able to mosey around their allotments without any distractions or background noise," Paddy says.

Growing vegetables has been a new phenomenon for many of the tenants, so last year Paddy ran an evening course over eight weeks to at least give some of his tenants a basic understanding of how the vegetable growing process works.

He showed participants how to open drills and plant potatoes and other vegetables. He also showed the budding gardeners how to weed their plots, manage the allotments in order to get the best yields and spray their vegetables.

The allotments

Paddy feels the 108m plots are a generous size from a management perspective. All allotments are cultivated and levelled to reduce the workload, while enabling his tenants to concentrate on their planting regime.

The simple advice Paddy offers clients is not to get carried away but simply grow what they eat in the household.

Last year, most of his clients grew the traditional mix of Irish vegetables. Most plots had potatoes, cauliflowers, cabbages, broccoli, carrots and peas.

However, one of the more adventurous South African customers imported and planted a white variety of maize. The maize is unique as it grows flour white and is used for cooking.

Surprisingly, as living patterns change, the busiest days on the allotments are Monday and Tuesday. As Paddy notes, it appears that the first two days of the working week are the new weekend for many people.

Looking back

Paddy is pleased with his relatively new venture although, within three months, there were another six allotment businesses set up in Meath.

Good facilities and an advice service made the job a lot easier as the majority of people starting out with allotments have limited knowledge of growing vegetables.

Paddy believes there is a fine line between guiding people and telling them what to do.

"People will make mistakes but giving plenty of encouragement is crucial," he says.

In terms of retaining clients, Paddy points out that his research has proven to be totally out of kilter with the experiences of others.

Research shows that a farmer could expect to lose 5pc of his/her tenants each year.

However, Paddy's figures show that he lost 60pc in the first year.

Some clients relocated or changed jobs while other felt there was too much work involved in keeping the allotment going.

Future Expansion

Paddy is now forging ahead with his next venture. He is planning to provide allotments for people looking to keep free-range pigs and poultry.

The Meath man says that the main reason for this expansion is to provide another attraction and service. To date, six people have expressed an interested in rearing pigs. One of the main investments will be buying pig arks, which cost €200-550 each.

Just in case he might find himself with a few loose hours, he also intends to grow more vegetables and to start a door-to-door sales service selling fresh vegetables.

Clearly, Paddy is not going to be beaten by this recession.

Maybe there is a lesson in this approach for all of us who promise to get more exercise and improve our diet.

A talk with the local allotment provider might just kill two birds with one stone.



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