Kildare man who went from restoring vintage motors to supplying fresh produce for a top restaurant
Sprout Farm is based in the small village of Rathcoffey, Co Kildare. Certified by the Irish Organic Association, this 40ac farm is owned by Gar Whelan, who runs Cardock Classics, a Mercedes restoration business located in the village.
With little farming experience himself, Gar had rented the land to a conventional farmer, but was keen to develop a farming enterprise. An opportunity presented itself when Gar was introduced to Jack and Theo Kirwan, who own Sprout restaurants, and after many meetings and passionate discussions, a partnership was formed and Sprout Farm Ltd was born.
Sprout currently has six restaurants with a seventh on the way, all of them based in central Dublin.
The partnership is based on the fact that Gar had the land and a desire to grow fresh produce, and Sprout had a significant demand for specific crops. The primary crops grown are a range of salad leaves, including red kale, tatsoi, mustards, spinach and rockets, to make a baby-leaf mix for the restaurants.
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"In Sprout, we literally had no experience in farming, however we do know food and we had a dream to start growing crops directly for our restaurants," explained Jack. "We sort of jumped into it without any real knowledge, which is always a gamble, but we knew it could work. There has been a huge amount of learning along the way, but so far so good."
In the height of the growing season this year, the farm supplied 70pc of the salad leaf requirement for Sprout. Initial success has prompted expansion of the crop range and, this year, a further 10 crops were grown, including broccoli, cauliflower, beetroot and purple sprouting broccoli, all of which are used in seasonal menus in Sprout.
"For Sprout, there are numerous benefits to sourcing products directly from your own farm," added Jack. "Firstly, the taste and quality of the produce. Crops are harvested in the field and then served in the restaurants within 36 hours, which is key to maintaining flavour and freshness and making it a very sustainable production system.
"The supply chain is short and all of this works to ensure we are serving a phenomenal product. It separates us as a brand and we continually convey this message to our customers so they know that some of the food they are eating is coming from our farm only 30km away. Personally, it challenges us with menus as we strive to savour the fresh local ingredients used in our dishes, which makes it very exciting."
While the partnership presented an excellent marketing opportunity, the challenge for Gar was to turn the site into an organic horticultural unit.
"At the outset, we had a clear vision for the business, but the day to day realities of ensuring regular crop supply forced a steep learning curve," said Gar. "We enlisted the help of crop agronomist John Hogan and I sought advice from as many people as I could, and luckily it worked out."
Earlier this year, Sprout Farm employed local man Trevor Harris to look after day to day production. Trevor has been farming organically and biodynamically for the past 20 years and employs this knowledge to produce good quality crops.
"I have been farming cereals, beef and sheep, however moving towards horticultural production was a huge change," said Trevor. "Essentially I am applying my knowledge of the soil, its biology and nutrient management, to the crops that we specialise in. It is challenging, but very rewarding as you get a very quick turn around with some of these crops.
"My objective this year was to be able to produce 500kg of salad leaves a week from two-and-a-half acres of land, which we did. During peak production, we harvest five days a week and it is collected daily by Sprout at the farm, ensuring freshness and quality is preserved. We used a refractometer to measure crop quality and we were very pleased with the readings on the Brix index.
"To me, taste is everything and our growing methods are delivering on taste, which then throws the challenge back to the lads in Sprout to make the best of these fresh ingredients."
While it is still early days, the farm has plans to introduce protected cropping to extend winter salad production and additional crops. The initial success of the partnership has been hugely positive. In the summer months, 13 people were employed in the business, illustrating how production, even at this scale, can impact positively on the local community.
"This is one of the unforeseen benefits," said Trevor. "I was someone who worked just with a tractor, which is a solitary profession. Now there is a team of people here, which gives a great sense of camaraderie."
Sprout are currently taking 90pc of produce from the farm and there are plans to supply more customers in the future by expanding into additional retail markets.
"While we are lucky in this partnership as there is a ready market available to us, this is a production model that could be replicated easily around the country, making small-scale farming both more sustainable and economically viable" said Gar.
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