Blackberries and birch impress the visiting Minister
JUNIOR agriculture minister Tom Hayes could hardly have selected two less typical farms when he called to the Enniscorthy area recently. His first stop was a small 25 acre enterprise in Ballindaggin which employs 65 people at periods of peak activity – that's a small holding with a big work force.
At the second port of call in Ballymurn, the main harvest is taken in during the winter rather than waiting for late summer or early autumn. In short, these were not run-of-the-mill producers that the Minister of State had come to view on his study visit.
It is, of course, no secret that Jimmy Kearns grows strawberries at Curragraigue, Ballindaggin, where he lives with his wife Susan. He showed the VIP from south Tipperary how he manages to have succulent fruit on tap from April to November, and not just in June and July.
The Minister was plied too with blackberries – pumped up, glossy versions of the berries currently dripping in profusion from every bramble in the county. And there was also a punnet or two of raspberries to sample. But the bulk of the Kearns effort is channelled into growing and selling El Santa variety strawberries.
Jimmy showed the Minister of State his acres of glass greenhouses. He put his special guest into a jeep and brought him out to see fields full of plants reared under plastic cloches. He gave the man from the Government a look at his Spanish tunnels and his 'cosy' tunnels.
And the canny farmer made his play for the continuance of a grant scheme to allow him keep ahead of soft fruit-growing, hard-nosed rivals in the Netherlands, Morocco and California. He explained how he is hamstrung by the cost of heating his computerised mega greenhouses. The gas bill for keeping the temperature up during a dull grey March came to €40,000.
The plan is to convert in part to a wood burning boiler, which will be fuelled by a combination of timber chips made from discarded pellets and used peat compost. It sounds logical and, if it proves practical, then the new system could pay for itself within five years. With a dollop of grant aid, payback time could even less.
Wholesaling strawberries is now an 800-tonne-per-annum business in Co. Wexford, with Curragraigue the biggest of the four large producers. Kearns is followed on the list by Green in Gorey, Mernagh in Wellingtonbridge and Somers in Caim.
As the rain began to fall, the next stop on the Hayes itinerary was along a side road off the Ballymurn to Screen road, where None So Hardy nursery proprietor John McCarthy was waiting in a large draughty barn to shake the Ministerial hand. Nursery in his case means tiny trees, not nappy wearing tots. Thousands upon many thousands of tiny trees.
None So Hardy has 220 acres of oak, birch, alder, beech, sycamore and hawthorn with a scattering of Sitka spruce and lodge pole pine under cultivation in Ballymurn. Add in the 240 acres of Norway spruce, Scots pine and larch grown up the road at Donishal in Askamore and it becomes apparent how NSH provides the young stock for 80 per cent of the new forest plantations across the Republic.
They reckon that they are on to a good thing as the State has set a target of having 17 per cent of land under trees by the year 2030. That will finally bring us into line with our friends on the continent and also make a show of greening up our poor embattled planet. The raw material for this eco-friendly programme leaves Ballymurn or Donishal as slim saplings just a couple of feet long.
The main blot on the tree horizon at the moment is the collective holding of breath as foresters, farmers and nature lovers wait to see whether or not the dreaded dieback fungus has taken fatal hold of Ireland's ashes. NSH manager in Ballymurn John Kavanagh reported sadly the demand for once-popular ash trees has dwindled to practically nothing.
'We hadn't the heart to destroy all the ash,' confesses John, letting sentiment show. All told, around five million apparently healthy ash sallies have been put to the sword at his nursery while the collecting of seed for future planting has been abandoned.