Wexford People

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Flavour is king at Green Hill

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Sadbh, Deirdre, Edmund, Aoibhinn, Abigail, Eamonn,
Mairead and Annalise Crean, in May 2017.

Sadbh, Deirdre, Edmund, Aoibhinn, Abigail, Eamonn, Mairead and Annalise Crean, in May 2017.

Sadbh, Deirdre, Edmund, Aoibhinn, Abigail, Eamonn, Mairead and Annalise Crean, in May 2017.

Eamonn Crean, started out as a teenager, selling berries on the side of the road, interacting with the customers and, most importantly, learning the value of hard-earned money.

'It's amazing when you get something built into you from a young age,' Eamonn, who now runs Greenhill Fruit Farm, says. 'When I was on the side of the road selling fruit and someone hands over two pounds back to you, you respect their money. So I'm always very conscious of people's money. People always talk about price, but price is not the be all and end all, people want quality.'

That commitment to quality has served Eamonn well. He now runs an enterprise which started with his grandfather Tom English in 1947, was continued with uncle Paddy, before passing on to the third generation of the family.

Yet the business as it stands is far removed from that of his predecessors.

'There was 400 families picking jam strawberries in Wexford in the cottage plots up until the '80s, in that time there were mothers with a whole trail of kids coming behind them, they picked anything that looked like a berry and that went for jam,' Eamonn explains.

'The industry has changed so much. Now you're down to 15-20 farms in the whole country. There was two generations of jam strawberries, we're probably the first generation of just fresh fruit.'

Whereas his grandfather and uncle grew strawberries for Chivers, berries which would end up in pots of jam, Eamonn's strawberries, raspberries and blackberries go straight into punnets and trays, ready to be consumed.

And because of this, the picking process has changed, the criteria for a good strawberry or good raspberry is more stringent than before. Now, even the slightest blemish on a berry prevents it from being picked. Standards are high here - so high that Eamonn includes his phone number on each and every punnet.

'There's trust built up between the growers and the Irish people, they don't want to play a guessing game, "am I going to enjoy this product?" So I put my number on every punnet, and we're quick enough to find out if someone isn't satisfied with them.

'You're only as good as the last one you sell. So we concentrate on trying to retain the flavour. If a plant gets stressed or there's too much fruit on it or not in the right environment, the first thing that leaves is the flavour.'

More flavoursome than most are the soil strawberries, a type of fruit which has almost become extinct in this country but take up six acres at Greenhill.

'We still grow soil strawberries, they're almost gone completely out of Ireland. Their flavour has an edge the others don't.'

But why is Ireland, and in particular, Wexford, such a good proving ground for strawberries?

'If you want to grow something hard, like a watermelon then a warmer climate suits. But if you want to grow a soft berry, the colder the country the better. There's a slow ripening process and you get all the sugars built up naturally. Ireland has a huge amount of people dedicated to strawberries and this is why, when the season comes in, they buy straight away,' Eamonn says.

Yet this season has brought new challenges, the omnipresent threat of Covid-19 as visible here as everywhere else. However, as Eamonn explains, it hasn't had a huge impact on how they work on the farm.

'Anyone who produces food in Ireland is used to food safety, the whole Covid thing is only an extension of what a producer does,' he says.

To prevent the spread of the virus on-site, Eamonn has assigned staff into separate teams, giving them coloured wristbands depending on where they live, minimising the risk of infection and protecting the people who ensure the product leaves the farm in a timely fashion every evening.

Because the days are long at Greenhill, the nights are too.

'The pickers start at 5 a.m., they're finished at 3 p.m. The packers start at 8 a.m. and finish at 8 p.m. Some might do a double shift until 1 or 2 a.m. if we're very busy. And then the lorries are being loaded from 8 p.m. until whatever time the packers are finished,' says Eamonn.

Contrary to popular belief, a fruit farm like Greenhill does not shut up shop for the winter; even at its quietest times there are a minimum of 35 people working on the farm, the figure rising to around 200 at peak season.

And the welfare of his staff is of the utmost importance to Eamonn - so much so, that he invests in education for those who stay the course.

'I'm a huge believer in education, we spend €10-15,000 on education for the farm here. All the people that are managing here have done a QQI level 6 management course, I want them to talk to people rather than at people. We have so many different cultures here, so it's about understanding one another.'

But what of Eamonn's welfare? He has boundless energy, seemingly limitless enthusiasm; does he ever sleep, take a holiday?

'You sleep but your brain doesn't switch off. At this time of the year, if we have a problem about something I always like to spend a couple of minutes on it the day before and when I wake up in the morning I hope I've come up with the solution.'

And holidays?

'I took one there before the time of the snow,' he laughs.

Alongside the staff, Eamonn has a small team of his own, a family unit reared on the fresh fruit industry. He and wife Bridget have six children, five girls and a boy, between the ages of 20 and four. And all do their bit.

'The kids work in the packhouse, they sell the fruit on the side of the road, but they're not too fond of picking,' Eamonn jokes. 'They grew up from knee-high with it, so they're adopted into the whole thing. You get a crash course in business when you grow up in a family business in Ireland.'

With restrictions continuing to ease, Eamonn is hopeful that the part of the business where he started will be allowed to resume in the coming days.

'We didn't know whether we'd be able to sell on the roadsides and, if we were, whether they'd have the same volume of traffic. But it looks good for the roads. The road has a lot of its own customers, has built up trust over a period of time. It's a very fresh form of buying fruit and there's a huge tradition there. We're hoping to be back out on there on May 18.'

Wexford People