Friday 20 September 2019

Sod your British soil - Croke Park prepares for Brexit with new turf farm in North Dublin

The farm where they grow everything from grass to food for Croke Park in the Naul, North County Dublin.
Photo: Mark Condren
The farm where they grow everything from grass to food for Croke Park in the Naul, North County Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren

Mícheál Ó Scannáil

Croke Park are preparing for the potential of Brexit with a new farm that produces turf that is even better than what is currently used in the stadium.

The 67-acre farm, which was purchased by the GAA last year for a sum around €700,000, aims to produce turf for Croke Park to replace what damaged by stages at concerts.

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Prior to the acquisition, All-Ireland's were actually played on English soil as the GAA sourced their sod from a speciality turf farm in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Croke Park Stadium director Peter McKenna previously spoke about the threat posed by Brexit to the current arrangement, as fears of a 20% surcharge on agricultural products could add roughly €100,000 to the cost of a concert.

Mr McKenna, along with pitch manager, Stuart Wilson, and former Dublin footballer Barry Cahill and hurler David Treacy, visited the farm last year to see the performance spec needed for GAA. While on the plane home, Mr McKenna and Mr Wilson decided that they could grow their own turf.

After the land was bought, the most rectangular area, a 40,000㎡ field was designated to the new turf. The hills and hollows in the field were first levelled out, before drains were dug every five metres across the width of the field. Gravel drains were also put in length-ways all along. An irrigation system of automatic sprinklers was then installed using only the natural spring water found under the field. No mains water at all is used on the turf.

Wilson said that not only does the new farm secure their financial future in terms of turf, but it also eliminates the risks posed by the long journey from England.

"With Brexit just around the corner we don't know what way that's going to go so to be able to grow in Ireland is a great option, so there's going to be some room to hopefully expand," he said.

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"What was happening in the past is we were bringing turf in from the UK and there's a huge risk in that because the turf has to be transported for what could be up to 24 hours. There's a risk associated with the turf being rolled up into rolls for that period of time and some heat damage in the middle of the rolls and frost damage on the outside of the rolls because these lorries are kept just above 0 C.

"It has been an amazing investment. The first load was harvested at 7.15am and by time it is loaded into the truck and brought to Croke Park, it was laid down exactly three hours later, so it could be 24 hours later when we get it from the UK so it reduces all the risk."

roke Park grass 111.jpg
The 67 acre farm, which was purchased by the GAA last year for a sum around €700,000, aims to produce turf for Croke Park to replace that damaged by stages at concerts. Photo: Mark Condren

Mr Wilson and his team are currently trying out several different types of sod and grass to get the perfect end product. Currently, 15,000㎡ of the field is in use with a GAA pitch needing 13,000㎡ to 15,000㎡ of turf.

While at the moment they are only growing enough grass to replace areas after a concert, in the future they will look to expand the area of turf grown to the extent that they can even supply to other venues across all sports in Ireland. With exportation tariffs likely on the large-scale producers from England, they are considering the possibility of exporting throughout Europe as well.

Wilson said that the quality of the turf they are producing is better even than that of Croke Park's current hallowed sod. In the months leading up to its placement in the stadium, the grass at the farm in the Naul area is treated exactly the same as that in Croke Park, so that it matches in every way.

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"When the turf is ready to be harvested for Croke Park, the quality of it would be the best quality you could play on, because it's not played on and it's absolutely manicured, you can see how good it is when you come into Croke Park but that's played on there's so going to be wear and tear.

"It's immaculate when it comes into Croke Park. We can add that personal touch to it because we are highly-qualified ground staff that have worked in Croke Park. When we buy from the UK obviously the standard is very, very good but when you're adding that personal touch to it, we know what we're designing for Croke Park.

"It's a very slow process. We want it to peak basically when it comes into Croke Park so we add more nutrients leading, and then in the final few months we mirror exactly the treatment that the grass on Croke Park is getting.

"Everything from the colour to the density is identical, so it blended in perfectly and plays very well."

Croke Park are not only utilising the space to grow turf for their pitch. At the farm there are also ten beehives, a tunnel of herbs and vegetables and an orchard with pear trees, apple trees and peach trees.

The produce is then used to cater for the the thousands of supporters that enter the stadium on match-day.

For Saturday's All-Ireland final replay, Croke Park executive chef Ruairí Boyce will head a massive team of caterers who will feed 2,400 people in the corporate area, with a further 6,500 to 7,000 on premium levels, and they're all on different menus. Food will be served on seven levels with 70 suites enjoying based on clients own wishes. A further 45,000 to 50,000 fans will be served on public levels.

Vegetables, fruit and herbs grown and honey produced at the farm will make up some of the many elements cooked for the menus. Any compostable waste on the day will also be sent back to be processed and returned to the farm where the cycle is repeated.

Mr Boyce said that where the food he cooks comes from is extremely important in Croke Park, especially on All-Ireland final day.

"I think it's quite special and it's a nice little touch. Provenance is hugely important to us here in the stadium. We do it all year round but we put a little more focus on a final.

"So this weekend with Kerry and Dublin playing, on one of our menus, Baily and Kish, on the West Pier in Howth are smoking bespoke organic salmon for us and we have some really beautiful crab coming from dingle and there are lots of little things like that from the counties that we put into our menus.

"Then we will be using food we have actually produced on our farm. Last week for the opening game , for example, herbs and honey produced at the farm was sent to another farm where it was used to produce the goats cheese we used.

"It's a really nice touch."

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