'You either get bigger or you get out' - Cork woman determined to make a living as a potato grower
Nora Sheehan and her husband Connie have been growing potatoes and vegetables at their farm in Castletownroche in north Cork for 28 years but as with many growers, their future is far from certain.
Since the early 1990s, the Sheehans have sold their Kerr's Pink and Rooster potatoes to the once booming wholesale trade, but this market is now in severe decline and many growers have left the business altogether.
"The wholesale market was a huge market for us in the 1990s, now it's a dwindling market. It supplies town shops and corner shops but that is a small market now," says Nora.
"We planted more than 40 acres in the past but this year it's 30 acres, as the market is just not there.
"All small to medium growers are in a similar situation to us. They're dropping their acreages and some are not growing any more."
As well as growing 30-40 acres of potatoes, the Sheehans also grow cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage.
Nora, who is vice-chairperson of the IFA's potato committee, maintains that the below-cost selling practice that supermarkets are engaging in is "unacceptable" - it shows a "lack of respect" for the work the farmer does to ensure the consumer has a supply of potatoes all year round.
"Potatoes and vegetables should never be sold below cost," she insists. "It undermines the primary producer. Supermarkets should respect the investment that farmers make in cold storage so that there's continued supply of Irish produce all year.
"There should never be a time of year when they're sold below cost as it's a very volatile market. Even at Christmas time they're sold at below cost when there should be no reason to be because there's high consumption."
Nora adds that below-cost selling leads to over-buying, "which is bad for the consumer in the long run as it encourages food waste".
While some potato growers have chosen to expand in an attempt to combat poor prices, Nora says that the majority of small to medium growers are either reducing their acreage or abandoning growing completely.
"The balance of power lies with the retail chains," she says. "They're at the top as the price setters and the primary producers are price takers at the bottom that have no say in it. Once they're pushed out they won't go back. I know several growers here who dropped from growing 30 acres to zero.
"It's like the dairy farmer -you either get bigger or you get out. It's a pity for small farmers out there."
In the 1990s, potatoes were mostly hand-picked in the field by local teenagers, but the Sheehans now hire contractors to do the machinery work. It is one of the many expenses involved in running the operation and makes the prices paid for potatoes in supermarkets "even more unfair".
"Local teenagers used to do the majority of the work but now they're not willing to do the same type of physical work," Nora explains. "There are huge expenses now compared to years ago. Seeds are very expensive and you have to replace them every year.
"We pay €600 per tonne for roosters, which retail at €3 per kg, which is €300 per tonne and the same story applies to cabbage and cauliflower."
The poor weather since last autumn has wreaked havoc on potato planting and vegetable harvesting nationwide. An estimated 1,000 acres of the country's potato crop were still in the ground at the end of the year.
"We were four weeks behind planting our potatoes which we finished last week and four weeks behind harvesting our spring cabbage which we usually harvest around St Patrick's Day but couldn't this year because of the weather," says Nora.
"We will be a month behind in everything overall."
She adds that many potato growers are six weeks behind target and that yields nationwide are likely to be down this year. However, she is hopeful that this scarcity might lead to a jump in prices.
Nora and Connie's twins Siobhan and Conor (14) both help out with planting and harvesting, but Nora admits that she would be "exceptionally worried" if either of them decided to follow in their parents' footsteps as potato farmers.
"They'd nearly need another job to make a living out of it but it's a full-time type of working and very labour intensive so it's hard for people to do that," she says.
"With the way the weather is and how the lifestyle is going I wouldn't be encouraging them to get into it but I'd hate to see a day where there are no more small producers."
Three years ago, the IFA and Bord Bia launched the 'Potato - More Than a Bit on the Side' campaign. While Nora says she hasn't seen an increase in sales on her farm, consumption countrywide has increased, which she finds encouraging.
While she is of the generation that loves to boil potatoes, the campaign's website has 140 recipes that make potatoes more attractive to the modern consumer and have helped debunk the myth that potatoes are unhealthy.
"We needed to move on with the times. Lifestyles have changed and after work people don't want to be waiting around for the potatoes to boil," says Nora. "There's still a myth that potatoes are full of fat but they're the perfect carbohydrate as they're fat-free."
For all of its challenges, Nora and Connie love potato farming.
"It's a lovely business and lovely to be able to supply consumers with food so fast," she says. "I'd hate to see small farms go out of business. This is our life. It's our culture and heritage.
"It would be awful to see the day where there's no small producers. Small producers have a personal touch and care about quality. If we have to import more potatoes, customers will have to pay extra."
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