Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 February 2018

Fruit and veg growers need retailer support

Stellar Corn: Agronomist John Hogan with organic veg grower Liam Ryan in some of Liam's impressive looking sweetcorn
Stellar Corn: Agronomist John Hogan with organic veg grower Liam Ryan in some of Liam's impressive looking sweetcorn

Grace Maher and Darragh McCullough

It's been a great season for vegetable growers after five consecutive growing seasons that were poor at best. In fact, after the last two years in particular, 2013 may just have been enough to prevent many growers from giving up altogether.

While the wet years were tough for conventional veg producers, it was even tougher on organic farmers due to the increased weed burden that damp conditions bring. Soil structure also takes a pounding when trying to remove weeds in the wet.

In addition, the lack of sunshine and real heat meant high value crops such as tomatoes, peppers and strawberries had depressed yields, even crops grown under the protection of glass or polythene. Cold dark days restricted plant growth and played havoc with winter crop planting dates, resulting in very poor annual returns for most growers.

The number of veg growers continues to decline every year as they struggle to compete with cheaper imports. John Hogan is a veteran of the conventional horticulture industry, having worked as both a producer and advisor to growers.

"The cost of labour in Ireland is extremely high and has a disproportionate impact on the costs of production in fruit and veg because it is so labour intensive," John said.

"This is one of the biggest reasons that growers struggle to compete with imported produce. However, I also blame the big supermarkets who do not show any commitment to Irish growers. They want Irish produce but on their terms, which are often impossible to meet.

"If supermarkets want to be able to offer a range of Irish fruit and vegetables to their consumers, then they need to show much greater commitment to both conventional and organic Irish growers so that they can stay in business," he said.

The statistics would suggest that there is still huge scope for import substitution on the supermarket shelves with more locally grown produce. Despite the four main retailers shifting approximately €36m a year in organic fresh produce, more than 70pc is imported.

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This was the case even this year when some growers' crops performed so well that they had a glut of produce. In very hot weather people often eat less than normal and growers were crying out for additional outlets for their produce.

Unlike a typical conventional grower who often specialises in one or two crops to fulfil supermarket requirements, the organic grower usually supplies a range of produce on a much smaller scale. Common lines include leeks, kale, potatoes, carrots and broccoli.

Typical outlets include direct sales via farmers' markets, box schemes and internet sales.

Most growers find that their crop mix evolves in line with what their customers want to eat.

And while organic customers tend to be a loyal bunch, they still need a good range of products to keep them coming back week after week.

This poses a raft of management challenges, especially in relation to crop rotation and nutrient management.

Organic vegetables also have a shorter shelf life, further limiting their suitability for the central distribution systems so beloved of the large supermarket chains.

Direct sales side-steps this issue by allowing the crop to be harvested and then sold the following day.

Irish Independent