Kevin McCann often walks through Tullyallen orchard in Co Louth inspecting leaves and fruitlets for scab, a highly contagious fungus, ensuring that everything is healthy and getting enough sunlight. Apple and pear trees are a sensitive bunch, after all.
It’s partly why Ireland imports about 95 per cent of its eating apples, often from as far away as Chile and New Zealand, where large orchards grow on fertile soil amid sunshine and low wages. Similarly, every pear sold in Irish supermarkets is grown abroad.
But with the climate changing and consumers increasingly conscious of sustainability, more shoppers are seeking locally-grown fruit from producers like McCann. With the Government trying to reduce carbon emissions, the seeds of an opportunity for Irish horticulture are taking root.
“We treat the trees like children,” said Mr McCann, commercial director at McCann Orchards. “We really want to nourish them and keep them away from harm.”
The McCanns have been growing traditional Irish apple varieties like Bramley at their Armagh orchard since the 1960s. For the past 25 years they have been selling these to retailers, primarily Tesco. Now locally-grown Gala and Golden Delicious apples, along with Conference and QTee pears from the family’s new orchard in Tullyallen, just north of Bettystown, will help fill Tesco shelves.
Apple and pear orchards are hugely helpful in the battle against climate change, said Lorcan Bourke, fresh produce and potato manager at Bord Bia, as they sequester large amounts of carbon-dioxide.
Autumnal leaves fall from both in large quantities, said Cornelius Traas, chair of the Irish Apple Growers Association. “As a consequence the soil carbon sequestration increases over time.”
Bord Bia commissioned a study last year that found there was a commercial opportunity for locally-grown apples. The main drawback was the time it takes an orchard to mature to get to the point where fruit is available to sell commercially. There is a danger that customers’ tastes can change while a grower is waiting for apple trees to blossom. Ireland is also a high-cost country in which to run a horticulture business, with wages and costs high.
Consequently, a partnership with a large retailer is necessary. Recognising that an opportunity existed, the McCann family, backed by the Department of Agriculture, approached Tesco.
Their orchard grows Gala apples, a cross between Golden Delicious and Kidd’s orange red apples that originated in New Zealand in the 1930s. Known for their sweet, juicy flavour, they are one of world’s most popular eating apples.
“We realised that Gala could be an import substitute which was not only saving on food miles but creating jobs in Ireland and helping carbon sequestration as well,” said McCann. “And giving the Irish consumer a locally-grown product.”
The project was fraught with risk, though, as Gala apples only thrive in sunlight. The 130 acres of land, on a sloped site 20m to 70m above sea level at Tullyallen in the Boyne Valley near the Louth-Meath border, were chosen because they were blessed with a generous amount of sunlight.
Weather stations on the farm gather data on leaf wetness, soil moisture, rainfall, volume and light units per day to ensure fruit stays healthy. Too much water and the fruit will rot. Too little and the tree will die, so a drip irrigation system rigorously ensures the right amounts.
Early spring frosts can wipe out entire harvests. To prevent this an alarm bell rings when outside temperatures dip below 1 degree Celsius, signalling workers to switch on windmills that pull warm air down and push cold air away from the trees.
“We’re creating our own wind vacuum, trying to keep the trees warmer than the frosty climate,” said McCann.
Unlike traditional orchards, which contain 200 to 350 large, round trees per acre, the Tullyallen orchard consists of 1,300 trees per acre spaced 80cm to one metre apart with each tree supported by wooden posts and a three-tier wire system that safely carries the fruit load during the growing season. This modern column-like design allows more sun to penetrate and delivers a greater yield of fruit.
Following the harvest apples and pears are placed in cold storage, where they will stay fresh for 6-7 months. Extending shelf-life is a long-term objective, said McCann.
As part of the two-year deal – worth €2.5 million – between Tesco and McCanns, 3.5 million local apples and pears will be available in Tesco this autumn and winter.
In all the project should cut 197,000kg of C02 emissions annually. “We can reduce our reliance on imported produce, resulting in fewer air miles and carbon emissions over the coming years,” said John Brennan, fresh category director of Tesco Ireland.