How this farmer grew his business in a multi-million fruit growing operation
Pat Clarke has created a multi-million business from humble beginnings, writes Darragh McCullough
Many of you will be familiar with the face from the packs of Clarke's strawberries, raspberries and blackberries that line the shelves of almost every supermarket in the country.
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But the smiling face doesn't do justice to the burning drive that has created a multi-million euro business from a Land Commission holding of 36 acres.
In the 1950s a nine year-old Clarke arrived in east Meath with his family from Glenamoy in northwest Mayo. Within a few years of arrival the young Clarke had latched on to the niche business of fruit growing in the locality to supply the Dublin market.
Even back then the passion and focus in the young grower was evident. The story goes that Pat was helping out a neighbour with her strawberry crop. However she got a shock when the thirteen year-old proceeded to tell her off for standing around gossiping with the neighbours when there was work to be done!
Twelve months later Pat had the first 10 drills of his own plants, which he can still remember as clear as day. "Talisman with one plant every 18 inches and each drill 30 feet long".
By this stage Pat had already left school, and by the time he was 16 he had bought his first tractor and started to work as a contractor for local potato growers. He also started milking cows, and by the time he was 50 Pat and his wife Mary had built up their holding to nearly 300 acres of owned land.
The commitment to the enterprise was enormous at times. With up to 150 locals - mostly teenagers - picking and packing fruit every summer, Pat regularly found himself rising at 3.30am to deliver fruit to Dublin, before getting back to the farm to manage the troops.
Sometimes he could still be found packing fruit until 1am at night.
But Clarke was no busy fool. He knew there was money in soft fruit, even when forced to go toe to toe with huge multinational competitors with deep pockets. So in 2002 when Pat sold off the 180-cow dairy farm that he had built up since his teens, the cashflow pumping through the business only increased. Clarke could now focus all his considerable energies on producing perfect fruit.
Since then, the area under tunnels has nearly doubled, and production by a multiple of that. Only this summer Clarke completed the development of a new multi-million euro pack-house and storage facility.
It's 42 individual packing stations are humming from 6am every morning, with huge 150MW solar panels overhead powering the massive chilling rooms storing tonnes of fruit at any one time.
The unit is creaking with technology, with even the heat from the refrigeration compressors being recycled to heat water for the staff accommodation on-site.
I was lucky enough to be able to join a tour of the tunnels last month with the team from Neven Maguire's MacNean Bistro.
The famous chef is another dedicated fan of Clarke and his produce and Neven puts a lot of emphasis on making sure all of his staff understand the effort required to produce the best quality food.
As per usual there wasn't a blade of grass out of place. Pat's brother James showed us how the hives of bumble bees tucked under the cool canopy of the plants work alongside the mites that are used to control unwanted pests.
Sugar scores are assessed in the crop before picking commences, and each one of the 78 pickers knows that if their productivity slips much below the average on any given day, or if the bruising on their punnets is picked up by the bar-coding system in the pack-house, they'll be notified the very next morning.
Meanwhile, Pat is still out at 5am every morning during the growing season starting the inspection routine of his 75 acres of tunnels that carpet the southwestern edges of Stamullen village.
The 5km route is never skipped, and indeed it's repeated last thing at night, ensuring Clarke maintains not only an unshakable grip on the business, but also the trim physique that belies his sixty years in the business.
Passionate, driven, dedicated and inspirational. All terms we hear being trotted out every week about sports men and women.
But every parish in Ireland has a food hero. They eat, sleep and breath the businesses they've built, so they are happy to show them off to those with a genuine interest. A kind of a 'How it's made' crossed with an inspirational day.
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