How this dairy, tillage and beef farm was reinvented as a garlic and asparagus farm
In 2004, the fields of Drummond House, the Collier family's 100-acre farm in Baltray, Co Louth, an hour north of Dublin, were used as car parks for the Irish Open, and as a landing pad for helicopters flying in golf fans who didn't want to sit in traffic.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Peter and Marita Collier, Drummond House is home to a successful Irish garlic business, and this year will see the farm's first full crop of Irish asparagus, a springtime delicacy that's prized for its delicate, fresh flavour.
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"Drummond House has been in Peter's family for 150 years," says Marita, who worked in sales and marketing before re-inventing herself as a garlic farmer.
"It used to be mixed dairy and tillage, with some beef cattle, but the land had been rented out for years. Peter is an architect and he works full-time as a project manager for the DAA, I was looking to start a business from home. Farming is so uncertain that we decided to look upon it more as a business than a farm, with the hope that we could develop something sustainable for the future."
With Drummond House garlic thriving - products include elephant garlic, smoked garlic and fermented black garlic, as well as garlic scapes - Marita decided that it was time for Drummond House to venture into another crop.
"In deciding what we were going to grow," says Marita, "we wanted to choose something that nobody within 50 or 100 miles of us was doing - there's no point falling out with neighbours or encroaching on their territory.
"Also, in terms of timing, the asparagus kicks in when the garlic tails off, which is good for cashflow. It may only be worth €8,000-€9,000 a year to us at the moment, but to a small farmer that's a significant sum. It's a premium product, we can produce it in limited quantities and because we own the land the risk is limited.
"Asparagus was actually quite a common crop throughout Ireland in the past, but there's been very little grown here in recent years. We approached a family of specialist growers in Holland for advice. They have been in business for 80 years and they came over to look at the farm before suggesting the varieties of asparagus that we should be growing based on our soil, climate and site.
"It turns out that the sandy lung soil of Drummond House is ideally suited to asparagus growing; and in fact many years ago 40 acres of asparagus were grown right on our doorstep, in An Grianán Horticultural College.
"The growers recommended two different varieties out of the hundreds that exist. Asparagus is an amazing crop in that it will grow in any situation if you have the right variety. The reason that there is so much asparagus grown in Peru and Mexico nowadays is because the governments in those countries incentivised farmers to switch to asparagus from growing coca leaf, which is a drug crop."
The Colliers purchased 11,000 asparagus 'crowns' from the Dutch growers and planted them on a two-acre site in March 2015.
"A crown looks a little like the top part of a jellyfish, with roots like tentacles coming out of it," explains Marita. "The spears grow out of these roots. You plant the crowns about eight inches deep in beds that are a metre apart and spread out the roots. We are only 800 metres from the sea here and we get lots of high winds, which means we have soil erosion. Because of this, we were advised to plant on the flat rather than in raised beds."
Asparagus takes three or four years to become fully established, so it's a crop that requires patience on the part of the grower.
"The plants grow in a few months, but the stalks are very wispy," explains Marita. "They turn into a fern that's full of sugars and nutrients, which you mulch back in, top-dressing the plants with mushroom compost and horse manure to feed the crown.
"The second year the plants came back stronger, but we harvested nothing and did the same again. Last summer, which was year three, we just harvested the thick, strong stalks and left the wispy ones. We hope to get our first full yield - about a tonne - this year."
The asparagus season is a short one - traditionally it ends on the longest day of the year, June 21 - with Marita and her team of local women ("other mums that I met at the school gate") harvesting twice a day, once at six in the morning and again around four in the afternoon, seven days a week.
"Asparagus can grow 6-8 inches in the space of 24 hours," she says. "We cut it all by hand, take it to the pack house, rinse it and put it into the chill room standing up in water; you treat it like a flower. It has to be chilled within an hour of harvest to keep it sweet."
Last year, the demand for Drummond House was such that it far outstripped supply. In Dunnes in Cornelscourt, 120 200g bunches priced at €4.99 each sold out within three hours, and chefs from prestigious kitchens competed for the delicate spears, promising to do them justice.
"The chefs here know their asparagus," says Marita. "I was really blown away by the interest, they all wanted to get their hands on it. It was a real vindication for the way we had minded and nourished the crop. The closest thing is the Wye Valley new season asparagus from Herefordshire. It's not hard or woody at all, it tastes like really fresh peas, it's nearly too nice to cook."
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