Opinion: Recent shortages reflect how dependent we have become on vegetable imports
Over the past few weeks vegetables have taken centre stage, which is unusual for this time of the year.
The heavy rain and snow in Spain has hit supplies of popular crops such as aubergines, broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach and courgettes, and they are all in short supply.
It raises a number of interesting points such as, eating vegetables in season and our growing dependence on imports.
With the number of conventional Irish vegetable growers continuing to decline, the sector badly needs to attract growers if we are to guarantee Irish produce on retail shelves.
Organic fruit and vegetable production is extremely labour intensive; but there are a number of dedicated organic growers around the country. Some specialise in field scale production of specific crops, but the majority operate from a small land base growing a large range of crops, (in some cases up to 40) and sell directly to consumers.
Weed control is a major challenge for growers, and the weather can also play havoc, especially if producing a wide range of crops. There is no degree course available in organic horticulture (or organic farming) in Ireland which limits training opportunities, so most growers have QQI Level 5 qualifications and, generally, learn on the job.
In horticulture labour costs are high, and returns and price are always an issue for growers. According to FiBL - the independent research institute for organic agriculture - Irish consumers spent €31 per capita on organic food in 2015, up 23pc on 2014. Ireland is now one of the fastest growing organic food sectors globally.
In addition, research group Kantar Worldpanel, has reported that grocery inflation in Ireland is set to stay low in 2017 as the supermarket giants continue to battle it out for supremacy.
This is good news for consumers, but growers need reasonable prices to be economically viable.
In the organic sector, there are not enough growers and with almost 70pc of organic horticulture produce sold in Ireland imported, it is something that needs to be addressed.
Growers need more support to enter the sector, both in organic and conventional horticulture, if we are to reduce our imports dependence. While some people refer to market opportunities that Brexit may offer us in exporting fruit and vegetables, we would be foolish to ignore the domestic market as Irish consumers want Irish-grown produce.
The overarching question is how much are they prepared to pay for it?
The Organic Growers of Ireland (OGI) has run the Organic Farming Apprenticeship Programme in Horticulture for the past three years to train and encourage potential growers in order to address the need for more Irish grown organic fruit and vegetables.
The programme is funded by the department and to date 18 apprentices have completed it. The OGI is currently looking for applications to join the 2017 programme.
It begins in April and runs for a minimum of six months. In addition to the on-farm learning, there are six workshops delivered by various tutors with expertise in organic horticulture production, and a range of farm walks.
Participants are paid on a scale equivalent to the minimum wage for the duration of the apprenticeship.
Collectively the host farms have years of experience growing organic fruit and vegetables, so this type of knowledge transfer is very specialised and based on personal growing and commercial experiences.
Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOGFA) email: firstname.lastname@example.org
'I was involved at all levels which was a great way to build my confidence'
Apprenticeship case study: Louise Rankin
Louise Rankin undertook the Organic Farming Apprenticeship Programme in Horticulture in 2016 at Moyleabbey Farm in Ballitore, Co. Kildare. The 6ha farm is owned by Liam Ryan and certified by IOFGA.
"Taking part in the apprenticeship scheme was an amazing opportunity as you get real hands-on experience of a working farm and business," Louise said.
"Liam was wonderful to learn from as he was very open with every aspect of the business from ordering seeds, keeping accounts, dealing with customers to taking part in his organic inspection with IOFGA," she added.
"If he saw that I was particularly interested in one specific area he would encourage and mentor me. I was involved at all levels of the farm operation which was a great way to build my own confidence," said Louise.
Moyleabbey Farm sell at the Carlow Farmers' Market every Saturday and they also sell from the farm gate on a Friday. Direct selling is time consuming but for this farm it guarantees maximum income. Small amounts of crops such as strawberries and salad leaves are wholesaled but the vast majority are sold direct.
Liam is very much in favour of the apprenticeship programme and sees it as an excellent way to encourage new growers into the sector.
"The basis behind the programme is that both the apprentice and the host farm grow together, and when it works well it really is fantastic," Liam explained.
"From the outset Louise was great, her strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. She is very organised, great with people, and now after undertaking her apprenticeship here she understands the set up and requirements of the business," he said.
"The way the programme is run with additional workshops allows apprentices to meet up regularly, and builds a network amongst themselves which is beneficial.
"Apprentices also take part in farm walks on the host farms which allows them to see how other farms do things, so things like seed varieties, crop diversity or machinery used are discussed," said Liam.
Louise feels that by taking part in the apprenticeship programme she was immediately more employable.
"It was an excellent way to learn, and as you are paid for the duration of the programme you are able to stay afloat at the same time," said Louise.
The relationship between the farmer and apprentice worked so well in this case that Louise is now employed by Liam, which is the ultimate aim of all good apprenticeship programmes.
For Liam it took the risk out of employing someone as he already knew her work ethic and skillset.
"It has been great so far this year as I have someone on the farm who can simply initiate tasks and get things done and it has really freed me up to get on with other jobs," said Liam.
He intends to participate in the 2017 programme as a host farm.
The programme is having a direct impact on the organic horticulture sector as six of the 18 participants found work on farm after their apprenticeship, five others are working to raise capital to start growing on land that they have access to, and two have started growing organically.
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