Grow It Yourself - June - Irish Veg Growing in Crisis

I’ve written here before about the lamentable state of affairs in the commercial veg growing world in Ireland. A perfect storm of competition from imports, aggressive price discounting on veg from retailers, and the low value placed on local veg has resulted in growers leaving the sector in their droves. The number of commercial veg growers has dropped 56% in 15 years, down to just 140 or so growers left in the country. In some cases there are vegetables (e.g. scallions) where we have just one commercial producer left, which says a lot about our food security as a nation.

The growers that are left have had to go big to compete. Most of them operate at extraordinary scale and tiny margins, which leaves them very vulnerable to external shocks. And the one thing we can be certain of with climate change, is that external shocks are becoming the norm. In the last year, they had to deal with 3 major weather events: the winds of Storm Ophelia, the snow of Storm Emma and the drought of last summer. While the general populace headed to the beach to enjoy the heat and drought conditions, many field veg growers had to invest in hugely expensive irrigation systems just to keep their crops alive.

These unforeseen costs (you don’t generally have to water outside in an Irish summer) are an existential threat for a low-margin business. Because of the power of the big supermarkets and the fact that veg growers don’t have a strong lobby voice the way beef or dairy farmers do, they have become price takers. They are literally given a price by supermarkets at which they have to produce their crop. Last summer, fearing more producers going out of business and more jobs lost (and veg growing is labour intensive), the growers had to go cap in hand to the supermarkets to plead for a temporary price increase. Bear that in mind the next time you see a picture of a smiling farmer in the middle of a field adorning the wall of your local supermarket multiple.

At Bord Bia’s Bloom this year, we hosted a discussion stage called Food Matters and several of our panels featured commercial veg growers. The discussions highlighted the challenges facing the industry, and yet…and yet. There are some reasons for optimism. Firstly, the arc of health and sustainability is bending slowly and inexorably towards more local, seasonal veg consumption. Report after report highlights the importance to our health and the health of the planet of eating more local, in-season vegetables and less meat.

Though the more established generation of growers fear for the future and wonder whether the next generation will want to take over the family business, they retain their passion for growing and have unrivalled growing expertise that risks being lost forever. As consumers we have to vote with our wallets, eating in season and buying Irish. Our broccoli crop from growers like Paul Brophy, for example, starts appearing on shelves about now and will be available (all going well with the weather) until November.

There are also newer entrants coming in to the market who are disrupting the system and doing things their own way. Look at the innovation from Drummond House growing garlic and asparagus in Co Louth. Look at Kenneth Keavy in Green Earth Organics who is growing 40 acres of organic veg in Corandulla, Co Galway (and employing over 20 people) selling direct to consumers in an at-scale box scheme. Look at Gavan Lynch of Hells Kitchen in Wicklow, who abandoned conventional mono-farming for a more varied life of organic dairying and growing 4 acres of hazelnuts. These are the stories that could inspire young growers in to the industry and if this is to be Irish horticulture’s moment in the sun, it’s that type of energy and innovation that’s needed.

In Season – Garlic Scapes

At this time of the year and just before they mature, hard-necked varieties of garlic (such as elephant) send out a long flower head or ‘scape’. Left to their own devices the flower head would produce its own tiny garlic bulbs known as ‘bulbils’. At this stage of their development, the scapes divert energy up the plant rather than down towards the bulb in the soil – which is what we need. For that reason it’s best to snip them off now.

Happily the scapes can be used in the kitchen and don’t need to be wasted. In fact they taste somewhat like asparagus and the aforementioned Drummond House sells the scapes as a pre-harvest delicacy. The recipe below is a pesto, but they can just as easily be used chopped up in to a veg stir-fry (blanched for a minute or two first) or used to make a slightly milder garlic bread.

Recipe of the Month – Drummond House Garlic Scape Pesto

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• 1/4 cup pine nuts
• 3/4 cup coarsely chopped garlic scapes
• Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• A few generous grinds of black pepper
• 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese


In a small, dry pan set over very low heat, lightly toast the pine nuts, stirring or tossing occasionally until just beginning to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes.

Combine the scapes, pine nuts, lemon juice and zest, salt, and pepper in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse about 20 times, until fairly well combined. Pour in the olive oil slowly through the feed tube while the motor is running. When the oil is incorporated, transfer the pesto to a bowl and stir in the grated cheese. If you plan to freeze the pesto, wait to add the cheese until after you've defrosted it.

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.

© GIY Ireland 2019 – all rights reserved.

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