Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

'The farms are run on a field basis, not on a clock basis'

My week: Pat Smyth

Pat Smyth (left) and Robert Baska on Paul Brophy's broccoli enterprise in Kildare.
Pat Smyth (left) and Robert Baska on Paul Brophy's broccoli enterprise in Kildare.
Broccoli harvesting gets underway. Photo: Roger Jones.

Ken Whelan

Harvesting is underway in the broccoli fields of Co Kildare and farm manager Pat Smyth and his team know they will be flat out in the fields from now until November.

Pat supervises all aspects of the work at the Paul Brophy Produce broccoli enterprise that stretches across 700ac of mainly rented land in the Lilywhite county from Naas to Kilcullen and over to Athy.

The work detail covers everything from plant propagation to harvesting and takes in agronomy, soil condition testing and nutrition, machinery care, refrigeration plant maintenance to say nothing of looking after the planting and harvesting teams who get the broccoli fresh to the supermarkets.

It's precision farming which uses every high tech option to get the best yields and lay low the vagaries of the Irish weather.

The farm supplies all the main supermarket chains with the green super food and has to compete aggressively with British and continental producers.

"The farms are run on a field basis, not on a clock basis so everyone has to be ready to go as soon as the broccoli has reached the standard size required by the supermarkets. The timing between planting and harvesting is critical," Pat explains.

"It's very labour intensive and very weather dependent. Two weeks ago we were irrigating some of the fields and today we are racing against the rain," says the 38-year-old horticulturist.

It's a long way from his upbringing on the family's dairy farm the Moneygall side of Roscrea.

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In the late 1990s he studied horticulture in Warrenstown agriculture college where he did his off campus practical work at the Brophy's farm outside Naas.

Back then the Brophys only used a few acres on the home farm for vegetable production but when Pat graduated he returned to the Kildare farm and stayed there rather than return to the home farm which is now run by his brother, Joe.

Just over a decade ago, Paul Brophy took the decision to specialise in broccoli because the land type in Kildare was suited to the vegetable. Paul Brophy Produce was born and nobody has looked back ever since.

It's a one-stop shop with everything on site from the 12 million seeds required for the fields and to the technology required to get the broccoli to the consumer.

The workforce comes from Poland, Lithuania and Romania for the season because, as Pat puts it, "you are not going to get twenty lads queuing up in Naas to do this job".

Many of the workers have been coming to Ireland for years to undertake the March to November season.

They are split into planting and harvesting teams and flexibility is critical to this side of the operation because the crops have to be timed to grow to the required size at precise times during the growing and harvesting seasons.

The enterprise also takes in horticultural students and has had some from Kildalton, Pallaskenry and Blanchardstown IT on the books over the past decade, but Pat observes that the interest here has waned somewhat of late.

Annual yields can range from two to seven tonnes per acre and to lift this volume takes time - the work can run late into the night at the height of the season.

So what does a horticulturist do in his downtime, I ask?

"I still play a bit of hurling at junior level with Sallins and I have a good interest in rugby.

"I also do a bit of marathon running," he adds almost as an afterthought.

Pat has so far completed four marathons - Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and Connemara - and has a personal best of 3 hours 43 minutes which sounds very impressive to untrained individuals like myself.

"If I train like mad and if I do it properly I think I could do a marathon in less than three and a half hours," he adds.

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