Meet the farmers working around the clock to deliver the traditional Christmas dinner essentials

Andrew Fitzpatrick hand-picking Brussels sprouts at Hilltown Growers in Garristown, Co Dublin. Andrew has been picking sprouts for 42 years and harvests up to nine acres in a typical season. Photo: Damien Eagers
Andrew Fitzpatrick hand-picking Brussels sprouts at Hilltown Growers in Garristown, Co Dublin. Andrew has been picking sprouts for 42 years and harvests up to nine acres in a typical season. Photo: Damien Eagers
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

When you are tucking into your Christmas feast next week, spare a thought for the farmers and workers whose efforts make it possible.

Men such as Andrew Fitzpatrick, who has spent the last 42 years picking Brussels sprouts by hand at Hilltown Growers farm in Garristown, Co Dublin.

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The farm is run by brothers John and Simon Gormley, who took over from their father, in the 1990s.

Andrew (58) told the Farming Independent that he began working at the farm when he was 16 and has been picking Brussels sprouts by hand for the Christmas market since 1976.

"I pick nine acres of sprouts all by hand. I start picking in September until the end of March. I mostly pick by myself, but when it gets busy John and two other lads would help me. I'd work at the weekends too coming up to Christmas," says Andrew.

Come rain, hail or shine, Andrew can be seen stooped in the fields picking the sprouts - working his way through 9ac in total during a typical growing season.

"It doesn't matter what the weather is like. This is my livelihood. I sort them and grade them myself and they are then graded again in the shed."

The Brussels sprouts that Andrew picks are all supplied to Marks & Spencer and Tesco stores nationwide, which Andrew says puts pressure on them to ensure the sprouts are just right.

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"They have to be up to scratch. Most sprouts around the country are picked by hand but Marks & Spencer only accept hand-picked sprouts so everything has to be up to standard and you've to watch out for blackspot," he says.

During the summer the sprouts, which were planted during the first week of May, were watered regularly to protect them from the harsh drought conditions, and he recalls it as a stressful time.

"We watered them every day, which cost money, but if we hadn't have done this, we wouldn't have saved the crop. It was a worry and we thought the crop would be affected," says Andrew.

"This is the lads' farm and it's how I earn a living, so it was a concern, but luckily yields have been very good. I'm very happy with them. There was a very good recovery overall."

John Gormley adds that 95pc of sprouts nationwide are machine harvested and that Andrew is "one of the last of the old stock" in the country who picks them by hand.

"He has real attention to detail and out in the field is where he is happiest," says John, whose farm also grows broccoli and swedes.

Over 100 miles down the road in Piltown, Co Kilkenny, James O'Shea of O'Shea's Fruit & Veg is busy sorting carrots for Aldi's Christmas shelves.

For James, Aldi's 'Kevin the Carrot' Christmas advertising campaign has put vegetables to the forefront of people's minds.

"We grow 240 acres of carrots and 180 acres of potatoes. Aldi will sell four million carrots during the Christmas period so it's nice to see that we are a huge part of that," says James, who has been working with the retailer since 1999.

He has started to use robots to sort some of the vegetables, but this hasn't affected his staffing. He currently employs 200 staff to harvest his own crops and sort the vegetables that come from a variety of suppliers in the south-east for the O'Shea's wholesale business.

"Planning how we will grow our carrots begins 12 months in advance, so we are already thinking of next Christmas now. We plant the carrots, which are of the Nairobi variety, between May and February. The growing season is about 120 days," says James.

"We try to sow at different densities and intervals to ensure carrots grow at the right size. We try to harvest carrots every day but it isn't always possible. We pick them at five degrees and store at two degrees for optimum temperature."

The Kilkenny man adds that many of his suppliers were working 24-hour days during the drought period of the summer but, through irrigating the carrots, they were able to save much of the crop.

Discounts

"It was a really hard time. We had eight irrigators on the go. Yields have been back a bit but overall it's been really good and we're mad busy now, thank God."

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Nora Sheehan

Meanwhile North Cork potato grower Nora Sheehan (pictured above) is calling on supermarkets not to discount potatoes this Christmas period.

"Potatoes are such a huge part of Christmas dinner in Ireland, there will be more demand for them than ever at this time of year so there is no need for discounting."

Nora and her husband, Connie, supply the wholesale market. She says that while price and yield of potatoes has been stable this year, waste due to secondary growth is bound to be an issue.

Nora hopes people support smaller cornershops this year, where her products are sold.

"The wholesale market is diminishing every year. People don't want to go to smaller cornershops because they can get everything cheaper in larger stores.

"There's no point complaining - there were challenges and losses but we got through it."

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