Sunny weather a boon to strawberry farmers in Wexford

Ireland’s 100 strawberry growers produce a crop worth €38m at the farm gate

Jimmy Kearns of Kearns Fruit Farm, Curraghgraigue, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, in one of his strawberry fields. Photograph: Mary Browne

Jimmy Kearns of Kearns Fruit Farm, Curraghgraigue, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, in one of his strawberry fields. Photograph: Mary Browne


They’re working flat out down on Jimmy Kearns’s fruit farm in Wexford trying to keep up with demand for strawberries – demand fuelled in part by the exceptionally sunny weather.

The farm, which includes six acres under glass, allowing for almost year-round production, is currently dispatching daily 400-500 trays, each holding 18, 300g punnets of strawberries. Kearns Fruit Farm supplies a range of supermarkets, including SuperValu, Dunnes and Lidl.

The German discounter confirms demand is high. “We sell an average of 20 tonnes of strawberries per week,” said a spokeswoman. “The good weather over the last few weeks has meant a noticeable increase in fruit sales, especially berries.”

Jimmy Kearns says about 95 per cent of what they grow are strawberries. The remaining 5 per cent is mostly raspberries but the farm also grows some cereals.

The disparity between the two berries comes down to profit margins: while both strawberries and raspberries currently sell wholesale (raspberries for jam, strawberries for the table) for about €5 a kilo, the raspberries are more fragile and labour intensive.

“To pick fresh raspberries for the [retail] market,” says Kearns, “you’d want to be getting at least €10 and €12 a kilo and that’s very hard to get.”

A good year

Despite this, however, “it’s been a good year, good enough”, says Kearns, who has been active for many years on the Irish Farmers’ Association’s fruit committee.

“When you don’t be getting the phone calls, you know everyone is okay! My problem now is that it’s too hot; I’m using fans [in the glasshouses] to keep the temperature down.”

In order to keep production going from May through until November, Kearns’ sow 100,000 new strawberry plants every 10 days, replacing plants on a rolling basis as they reach the end of their natural lives. Most Irish strawberries are of the Elsanta variety – “a nice, fleshy berry,” says Kearns, “hard to grow but people love it.”

The popular roadside berry sellers throughout the southeast are mainly smaller producers. To keep an operation the size of Kearns going, the company employs just under 60 people.

According to IFA president Eddie Downey, strawberry production is a significant contributor to the agri-economy.

“Ireland’s 100 strawberry growers produce a crop worth €38 million at the farm gate, with production expected to reach 8,000 tonnes [eight million kg] this year,” he said in June during National Strawberry Week.

The industry in Ireland competes against the much larger Dutch industry which, according to growers here, regularly “dumps” its surplus production on to the Irish market.

“We find it very, very difficult to compete with the Dutch,” says Kearns.

“They are just enormous and over there in the last few years, there is probably 100 to 120, or maybe even 150, hectares of glass gone out of tomato production and over to fruit.”

Against the grain

The fine weather of late also bodes well for silage production – yields in normally harsh conditions of the Atlantic seaboard are significantly up on last year – and for grain farmers.

However, for every upside, there’s a counterbalancing negative.

“Crops are looking good but initial reports suggest maybe not as good as last year,” says Liam Dunne, the IFA grain committee chairman, who farms about 180 acres near Athy, growing oats, wheat and peas.

It appears that after an exceptionally wet winter, farmers, particularly those on headlands, ploughed in spring once the rains abated, doing so perhaps too early.

“The ground seemed dry,” says Dunne, “but deep down it was still wet. . . and nutrients were also washed away.”

The working through of these factors has seen six-row barley (a variety on which the ears have more grain) return disappointing yields at harvest – “possibly because they dried and ripened too early”, says Dunne – while hopes are high for the less bulky, two-row variety to be harvested early next month.

Currently, mill prices to farmers are falling, which suggests oversupply from a bumper crop. According to Dunne, farmers need about €150 a tonne for grain to break even.

“There’s no trading going on [now] because prices are falling and you can’t blame the merchants [mill owners] for that really. Merchants are saying ‘bring in the grain and we’ll store it for you and give you a price in September’. Now, I can understand that, but farmers are very nervous of that.”

The price is wrong

He says if a supplier pushes a mill for a price today, they’ll get an offer of about €120 a tonne. “That’s just not sustainable,” he says. “We can’t survive on that.”

He says some 40 per cent of Irish cereals are grown on rented land and, if prices remain low, some farmers will be tempted to switch to grass and back to dairying.

And the ideal weather for the grain farmer?

“A colder winter with a good frost to stop growing and promote dormancy [in sown seed], a mild spring and a warm summer,” says Dunne. “That’s what we’d all like to have but don’t seem to get it.”