The Irish horticulture sector remains buoyant despite unseasonable bad weather and pressure on producers from big retailers.
The horticulture sector contributes almost €300 million to farm output annually, with the protected cropping sector contributing close on €80 million in farm gate value to that total.
Protected cropping refers to crops grown under either glass, or plastic for some, or all of their cropping cycles. The most common protected crops in Ireland are strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, sweet peppers and celery.
Consumption of protected fruits and vegetables is increasing yearly and with consumer demand for more Irish grown product, it’s a sector with huge potential for growth.
Currently the retail fresh produce market in Ireland is valued at €1.2 billion, comprised of €519 million in vegetables, €545 million in fruit and €145 million in potatoes.
The Irish Farmer's Association's vegetable committee chairman Matt Foley, a tomato producer based in Rush, Co Dublin, says the last few years haven't been easy on producers.
“We have had two bad years and effectively 12 months of rain in the past year. We have had horrendously cold weather, land that was impossible to work, crops failing, seeds not germinating and even hailstones in May,” says Foley.
Foley says he know of one farmer producing spring onions who had his crop destroyed by hailstones and unseasonably cold spring weather. "The hailstones damaged all the stems rendering them completely unsellable," he says.
“Root crops have been a total disaster this winter. Cauliflowers and cabbages production suffered with the low temperatures and frost damage.
“Tomato growers and other growers of protected crops faced extremely low temperatures leading to higher costs. It was made worse by extremely poor light conditions while March was the dullest month on record.”
Foley says the poor weather prevented other crops such as pak choi and lettuce from going to seed and producing hearts properly.
“Here in Rush a few family farms have ceased trading because they were unable to cope with the continuous loss of crops. With crops like parsnips, there was a loss of 60 per cent in the field, which is totally unsustainable,” says Foley.
“We’re seeing more businesses going to the wall and its sending shockwaves to those of us who are still trying to hold on.”
Foley says the IFA is concerned about the effect of below cost selling by retailers on producers.
“Supermarkets discount certain lines of fruit and vegetables to entice people into the shop. Even if the supermarket decides to pay the grower a good price and discount the produce it still has an effect on the growers because smaller shops can’t afford to pay the grower more.
“ Prices on the shelf don’t necessarily reflect the price that’s paid to the grower. More and more growers are leaving as they can’t get good enough margins on their produce.”
Foley says that while April was a good month, farmers have “plenty of catching up to do.” “Spring brings rejuvenation and regeneration so we’re hoping for a better growing season this year,” says Foley.
Dr Michael Gaffney, horticultural researcher at Teagasc says that Ireland needs to highlight its green reputation in order to boost the Irish horticulture sector.
“We grow our vegetables in the same environment that our milk and beef is produced; we need to trade more on that.”
Demand for protected crops such as tomatoes is increasing in Ireland, says Gaffney. "Protected crop consumption is going up, so we need to address that by embracing existing technologies that are already out there,"
Gaffney highlights the Teagasc National Protected Crops conference which featured a panel of international speakers took place earlier this month.
The significant developments which are unfolding in protected cropping were outlined, such as advances in the engineering of glasshouses and important efficiencies in energy and light control.
Cutting-edge plant science is now providing major advances in production efficiencies and facilitating the enhancement of crops.
“Over the next five years advancements in light technology, energy management and biological crop protection should result in significant yield increases across a range of crops,” says Gaffney.
“Horticulture is embracing non-chemical control of pest and diseases at the moment – you find that more and more in particular in glass houses that very little chemical pesticides being used.”
He adds that the Irish horticulture industry has access to far fewer chemicals with more rigorous enforcement of the chemicals compared to other countries.
Gaffney says that while the move away from chemicals is to be welcomed, protected cropping is not at a stage where it can be completely chemical free yet.
"It's an industry that's moving away from chemical control but it needs to be done carefully as you can't just walk away from chemistry – unfortunately there's currently no biological control for weeds, so you need herbicides or some chemical treatment to control them."
Jim O’Mahony, head of horticulture at Teagasc, agrees that that crop production has the potential to massively increase despite the mixed weather by taking advantage of scientific developments, citing the use of LED lighting for plant growth and disease control as one of the technologies aiding productivity.
“Protected horticulture production is growing massively due to glasshouse technology engineering and plant science technology, which leads to major increases in productivity,” says O’Mahony.
O’Mahony insists that despite the obstacles, horticulture remains an attractive industry. In January this year, a €3.25 million grant scheme for the horticulture sector was launched under the National Development Plan.
Aimed at all horticultural sectors – protected crops, nursery crops, field vegetables, soft fruit, apples, beekeeping and mushrooms – it will provide grant aid, at a rate of 40 per cent (50 per cent in the case of qualifying young farmers) for approved capital investments undertaken by mid-October this year.
O’Mahony says that the grant scheme proved popular with more than €10 million worth of grants applied for. “The scheme received a lot of interest, we were only able to supply one third of the demand – a testament to the flourishing horticulture sector in Ireland right now,” says O’Mahony.
Meanwhile, amenity horticulture will take centre stage this June bank holiday weekend at the 7th annual Bloom gardening and food festival in Phoenix Park. The festival will include "a gathering of gardeners" – several thousand people invited from abroad to mark the Gathering.
The festival will be spread over 70 acres and will feature 28 show gardens, a floral marquee featuring 50 nurseries and almost 200 retailers.
Manager of Bloom, Gary Graham, says that amenity horticulture remains "recession proof.".
“It’s been a difficult couple of years for amenity horticulture – we had the Celtic Tiger years which led to a boom in landscaping because you had 90,000 new homes being built. That led to a lot of gardening and landscaping going on but that has fallen off since recession so we’re back to the more ‘normal’ industry. It’s still an industry worth over half a billion.
“When you look at the gardening sector, it can be considered somewhat recession proof in that when people are staying at home more, not going on holidays as much or changing their car. They’re turning to gardening instead and doing up what they already have.”
The Grow it Yourself movement which encourages people to grow their own food has been positive for horticulture in Ireland, says Graham. "There are over 50,000 people participating in Grow it Yourself groups around the country. It has really taken off in the past few years.
“Nowadays people want to know where their food is coming from and it’s the same with plants now, people want Irish plants.”
Graham says the Bloom festival has been marketed to British and overseas visitors as part of the Gathering celebrations. Bord Bia, which organises Bloom, is offering 1,000 people the opportunity to hold their own gathering at Bloom for free. Their groups of visitors must have between four to 10 people who come from outside Ireland.
International guests will be given a Kennedy Irish chocolate-coloured primrose - Primula Innisfree – which was specially bred for the Gathering – as a gift to plant in their gardens.