A mini-revolution is happening in fruit and nut cultivation in Ireland as pioneering horticulturalists introduce varieties of walnuts, hazelnuts and unusual fruit trees that thrive in this country. Currently we import around 90 tonnes of hazelnuts annually – a nut which does not require much sun to ripen and has flourished here since the last Ice Age. Many European cultivars of hazelnut, walnut and sweet chestnut will produce at least one or two tonnes of nuts per hectare which sell in their shelled state for € 8-10 a kg, that’s a potential income of € 8,000 a hectare. It’s no wonder some farmers are taking note.
While walnut trees grown from nut only rarely produce crops in Ireland, the best grafted varieties begin nutting within five to eight years and produce good crops within 15. The nut trees combine well with livestock. But Ireland’s tradition of tenant farming based on annual leases meant that perennial farming never took hold and walnut trees were confined to novelty specimens in the big estates.
The practise of raising the most robust, nut-bearing varieties suitable for the Irish climate only began in the last decade with the work of Paul McCormack and Jacinta French at Woodkerne Nurseries in west Cork and Andy Wilson of the Sustainable Institute in Westport who runs Fruitandnut.ie
In the last four years, two farmers in the east of Ireland have established the largest nut orchards ever planted here – one has 1,100 cobnut trees (a larger and sweeter form of hazelnut) and the other 700 cobnut and 100 walnut trees.
Horticulturalists are also introducing new fruit varieties such as sea buckthorn berries (exceptionally high in vitamin C and a great source of Omega oils), aronia berries, (a “super-food” richer in anti-cancer antioxidants than even goji berries) and Saskatoon berries which contain almost as much calcium as milk. Many of these new fruits thrive in Ireland’s wet, cool climate.
Nuts could also play a role in improving the nation’s health, with walnuts being among the most nutritious of all: 15-25 per cent protein and high levels of Omega 3. Hazelnuts have similar levels of protein and a good range of vitamins.
Hell's Kettle Farm, Donard, Co Wicklow. hellskettle.ie
"We planted 1,100 hazelnut trees on four acres over the last four years, having intensively dairy-farmed until 2005. By September we'll have our first proper crop and within a few years we hope to be getting 3-4kg per tree, which will produce at least three tonnes in total.
“Ireland currently imports more than 90 tonnes of hazelnut every year, so there’s definitely a market.
“The orchard serves as a range for our turkeys in the autumn and they in turn provide the trees with a nutrient-rich fertiliser. Now, after four years the trees are sturdy enough to allow sheep in to graze. We’re getting some Babydoll Southdown sheep, a short-legged strain that cannot reach the hazel branches. The sheep will graze the orchard in the spring and then we’ll let the grass grow in late summer for turkeys to go out there again.”
Fruitandnut.ie nursery at the Sustainable Institute, Westport, Co Mayo
"There is a perception that not many fruits or nuts will grow in Ireland, but the biggest limiting factors are the lack of knowledge or accurate information, and the dearth of ongoing research.
“For the last number of years I’ve been researching disease-resistant and dampness-tolerant varieties of fruit and nut that have the potential to do well here – plants from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Russia and western France. Norway is significant because in spite of long winters and a short growing season the farmers produce commercial quantities of apples, plums, cherries, some pears and a wide range of berries.
“Conventional agriculture in Ireland is massively dependent on imported animal feedstuffs – something in the region of two million tonnes each year – not to mention a few hundred thousand tonnes of imported fertilisers. Both are predicated on the availability and affordability of oil. Nut crops are more immune to things like oil prices or poor weather at harvest time.
“Given the uncertainties of climate change, of future energy supplies and of global trade, Ireland should be diversifying in food production as a matter of urgency, with the State even sending people to places like Norway and western France to learn.”
Fruit and vegetable grower, market-seller
"I am growing alternative fruit and nut trees, and trialling different varieties of each species to find which is the hardiest and crops best.
“None of them are new species, just new to us. I know they work as they grow in far harsher climates than here. When blueberries first came in people said one couldn’t grow the modern varieties here commercially, but they have.
“I’m growing aronia berries, sea buckthorn, Saskatoon berries, honey berries and selling imported aronia and sea buckthorn juice.
“It’s crazy to buy things from abroad when we can grow them better in Ireland. Aronia has been grown commercially throughout eastern Europe since the 1950s. Poland has thousands of acres growing. These are valuable and viable perennial crops and when mixed with annuals can increase one’s income ten-fold, vastly reducing the chemical inputs required with mono-cropping. They can be introduced gradually to a farm with grazing continuing around them as long as they’re protected when young.
“They say sea buckthorn berries are one of the few food crops in the world containing all of the critical Omega fats, with 10 to 100 times more calcium than apples and a yield of five tonnes per hectare, each bush producing up to 7kg of berries per annum when mature.”
Landscaper/arboralist, Garristown, Co Dublin
"We planted four acres of cobnuts this year and over 100 walnut trees last year at Garristown, north Co Dublin. We have 28 Shropshire ewes grazing through them, creating an agroforestry system, though my main business is landscaping and tree services.
“The walnuts are individually fenced, spaced 12m apart which allows room for grazing and protects against blight. The sheep oughtn’t to damage the bark.
“The hazelnuts should be a success, but the big problem with walnuts is that a late spring frost can damage the flowers. ”