MD Stephen Mccormack on why he monitors food trends in the US and Australia
McCormack Family Farms have built on their position as the largest grower of salad leaves in Ireland by
completing their first harvest of organic spinach.
This marks a new venture for the Meath company into organic farming, and already they claim to have become the largest Irish producer of organic spinach.
The second-generation family farm at Boycetown, Kiltale has been in business for almost 40 years, and they saw the opportunity to provide a consistent supply of Irish organic spinach to the retail market, at an unprecedented scale.
Before this, supply at a large-scale level was dependent on imports year-round; and there have been problems with supply in summer.
The new offering has been in development for two years, with land preparation, sowing of seeds and harvesting the first crop across a 10ha site.
“Traditionally we have grown all our produce conventionally and imported organic spinach from Italy,” says managing director Stephen McCormack.
“When the weather is hot in Italy, supply can be unreliable, which leads to shortages on our side and letting customers down.
“We wanted to avoid this through cutting out imports, a trend being seen right across the sector.”
History is repeating itself for the company. In the 1960s, Stephen’s father Eddie was selling vegetables in the Dublin Corporation Fruit and Vegetable Market.
A lot of the produce on sale was imported, but Eddie, a graduate of Warrenstown Horticultural College, Eddie, realised that much of what he saw could be grown locally.
Established in 1984, McCormack’s Farms started off by growing vegetables. Stephen took over the business in 2000 and has diversified into salad leaves and herbs.
The business now operates off 700ac of farmland, including 3ac of polytunnels and 3ac of glasshouses. McCormack’s Farms employ 100 staff off-season and 135 during the peak.
Though organic was unknown territory for McCormack’s, Stephen decided it was an avenue worth further investigation.
“We felt the need to give it a go and have the inventory in place if sales were to start increasing,” he says. “Our journey to becoming organic began two years ago.
“With help from the Department and the Irish Organic Association we got the chosen plot converted for this growing season.
“We were lucky that this prime land close to us became available, and on May 16 this year the land was considered organic.
“We first began sowing the spinach in June and started to harvest in July. We are aiming to harvest over 100t from this parcel.”
Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English attended the harvest and said: “
I am impressed by their ambition, determination and innovation.”
Stephen insists the decision to try organic farming was not a financial one.
“As part of our ongoing sustainability commitments as a certified member of Bord Bia’s Origin Green initiative, we’re delighted that by growing organic spinach during the Irish season we can save 132t of CO2 emissions compared with importing from further afield,” he says.
“The organic option will cost more for the consumer, not because we are making a huge margin, but because the retailers know people are willing to pay more for it.
“The producer is getting paid only 15pc more for organic produce than conventional.
“Competition among retailers seems to be growing all the time. I often wonder how many outlets does one country need. In our local town, Trim, new stores are opening all of the time.”
The McCormacks also farm 280ha conventionally and Stephen doubts all the land will ever be fully converted to organic, but he hopes to continue converting blocks of land over the coming years.
“I don’t believe we will ever fully convert to organic — it’s a slow process — but we aim to add more land to it every year,” he says.
“It’s hard enough to grow these salad lines conventionally nevermind organically.
“A big downfall of growing organically is the no use of pesticides. If a disease or pest was to take hold of a field, we may have to disregard it entirely.
“We don’t usually spray unless we absolutely have to, but it’s a good resource to have. With organics this option isn’t available to us.
“Ireland already has some of the toughest rules on pesticide use, and these restrictions have made us better growers. When we don’t have this option at hand, we learn to do without it.”
Stephen says the main factor that will dictate the amount of land dedicated to organics in future will be retailer demand.
“This year has been a learning curve,” he says. “We have overcome multiple problems and will take these learnings with us in future.”
Stephen says Brexit has worked in his firm’s favour, as some lines are no longer imported.
“We have been able to meet the market demand created by these growers being blocked out,” he says. “An example is the 200,000 edible flower heads we supply each week.”
Growing and harvesting are just one part of the business for a firm the size of McCormack’s. Logistics, long-term planning and human resources are a key part of their success.
“We’re ideally positioned, with a good road network headed in all directions,” says Stephen.
“We have our own transport company to move our product rapidly around the country.
“We supply 24 counties each day and have eight full-time drivers working for us.
“We generally watch trends in America and Australia for ideas on what to grow next. They are generally 4-5 years ahead of Europe in terms of new lines.
“Labour supply is not too bad at the moment as we have a lot of college students working on the farm. Towards the end of August and September there could be an issue, as these students move back to cities for their studies.
“There’s no such thing as minimum pay on the farm any more. There would be no one willing to work if the money isn’t right.”
Stephen hopes to see a change in attitudes towards the horticulture sector in future.
“It’s not the back-breaking work that it used to be. A lot of what has to be done now is completed through automation,” he says.
What level of costs was associated with converting 10ha to organic?
Renting land for organic is almost double the cost of conventional, at around €1,000/ac.
Seed costs are similar but organic-approved fertilisers are a small bit more expensive.
In terms of getting the crop itself from seed to harvest, the costs aren’t that much different.
Instead of using pesticides, we had to buy a gas-powered weed-burner worth €100,000, and also some hand weeding was needed.
We also had to buy new crates, to avoid confusion between organic and conventional spinach in the factory. The organic crates are green and the conventional are orange, so before anyone even goes to read a label it’s clear which is which.
Have you availed of any grants or additional payment to help with converting?
We got a grant from the Department to help with the cost of the new gas burner. Other than that the conversion has been fully funded by us.
Do you intend to expand your area under organics further?
We plan to convert an extra 2-3ha to organic each year.
The main thing that will dictate this is supermarket demand, which in turn is controlled by what the consumer is interested in and buying.
A big shift has taken place among consumers. A combination of cooking at home through Covid-19 and a greater awareness of healthy eating, more and more people are looking for these products.
I believe the average consumer is looking for a healthier, more sustainable product every time they shop.
Where can consumers buy your organic spinach?
Spinach is our biggest line and we’re currently harvesting 5t per week.
Our product is on sale in Lidl under the McCormack Family Farms brand and will also be in Tesco, Dunnes Stores and SuperValu under their home brand labels.
To know it’s from our farm, just look for the origin Ireland label.