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Sector needs to nurture new talent


Twenty-five years a growing: Norman Kenny and Deirdre O'Sullivan began their business in 1990

Twenty-five years a growing: Norman Kenny and Deirdre O'Sullivan began their business in 1990

Nurney farm seedlings

Nurney farm seedlings


Twenty-five years a growing: Norman Kenny and Deirdre O'Sullivan began their business in 1990

As the annual Bloom Festival draws to a close, horticulture and the business of growing has been gaining some overdue attention in the media.

Agriculture has been one of the shining stars of the economic recovery, but horticulture has remained the poor relation.

There is strong evidence to show that consumers want to buy Irish produce, but they must be willing to pay a premium for it.

Irish growers face a continual squeeze on prices from the retailers, making it increasingly untenable to compete with cheaper imports.

We import large quantities of fruit and vegetables, many of which could be grown here. To reverse this trend, new growers are required to bring fresh ideas into the sector.

The situation is similar in organic horticulture. Allowing for seasonal adjustments, we import approximately 70pc of the organic fruit and vegetables sold here.

Recent Bord Bia research on the organic market recently showed a 3.1pc year-on-year growth. However, the concern among growers is that this increase was driven by aggressive price promotions in supermarkets, resulting in lower prices for the farmer.

Where the organic sector differentiates itself is in direct sales, with a high proportion of organic growers selling directly to the consumer.

This is the only option for many because they are so small, but it is also the preferred option as it gives growers more control over their market - not to mention better prices.

However, the growth in sales shows there is plenty of room for more growers to reduce our high dependence on organic imports.

In order to encourage potential growers into the sector an apprenticeship scheme has been developed by the Organic Growers of Ireland (OGI).

Now in its second year, the administration of the scheme is funded by the Department of Agriculture. The ten apprentices are placed with an experienced grower for a minimum of six months while they are mentored in a variety of tasks. Formal training days and farm walks are also included, giving them invaluable insight into the day-to-day running of an organic horticulture business.

Apprentices are paid a minimum wage for the duration of their placement.

'We worked hard to find solutions and we want to pass that knowledge on'

Producer profile: Deirdre O'Sullivan and Norman Kenny, Nurney Organic Farm, Carbury, Co Kildare

KILDARE-based Deirdre O'Sullivan and Norman Kenny are seasoned and very successful organic growers. who have been growing vegetables since 1990.

Their business, Nurney Farm, is one of the host farmers in the Irish Organic Food Growers Association apprenticeship scheme.

"It is important for established growers to pass on their knowledge, experience and passion to get young people involved in this business," says Deirdre.

"We need more growers and this is a great way for people to really find out what is really involved."

Deirdre and Norman are both from a farming background and met while studying agriculture. After college, Norman worked as as a farm manager but they decided that they wanted to work their own land, so in 1990 they bought 14ac near Carbury on a five-year loan.

They felt horticulture was the only option available to them on that acreage and they began growing organic vegetables.

"We bought our own land, this gave us great freedom to do things our way, but it made us extremely conscious of every cost on the farm - we had to make a profit to make the bank payments. Norman continued with a contracting business and I set up the organic farm," says Deirdre.

The business has since expanded and they have purchased another 30 acres to supply their growing markets.

Norman also gave up the contracting business and became more involved in vegetable production.

The main cost in organic horticulture is hand weeding. In order to reduce these outputs, Nurney Farm is very mechanised.

Direct sales

On Fridays they sell from a stall in Trim market and their own farm shop.

They also have a stall at the Green Door market in Dublin on both Friday and Saturday. They co-own that market with another grower and rent out stands to other producers.

"Direct sales have always been important for us as you get 100pc of the money for yourself. This is particularly vital when you are establishing yourself as a grower.

"Over the years we have built up a very loyal customer base - we see it as a fantastic way to make a living, very satisfying and rewarding both on a personal and a financial level," explains Deirdre.

Like other organic growers, they import stock in order to offer a greater range of goods.

Currently 60pc of their produce is sold direct and they wholesale another 15pc to other growers and businesses. The remaining 25pc is a contract crop.

Each week they grow 700-800kg of baby-leaf spinach to a very high specification, and it is sold in supermarkets from June to August.

"This is an important part of our business. Due to the high specifications it is very mechanised, so it is not for the faint hearted, but we like the challenge and it adds another level to our production here on the farm," says Deirdre.

After 25 years in the business, they are making a good living out of growing organic vegetables.

"I am not saying that any of it was easy, obviously there were struggles along the way, but we worked to find solutions and now we want to pass that knowledge on to new growers," says Deirdre. "The more bank loans we had, the harder we worked to pay them off.

"My advice to any grower is to produce the goods and the customers will come. If they see you are working hard to grow quality produce, they will support it," says the grower.

"You need to be reasonably priced, communicate well and provide a good service if you want to make your business a success."

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