This summer’s unpredictable weather has been difficult to manage for many but it has played havoc for one group in particular: strawberry growers.
The early summer heatwave of May and June turning into weeks of prolonged rain in July have affected the growing season and stalled production and slowed demand.
Climate change brings uncertainty for strawberry producers but, for the €50 million-a-year industry, it means adapting.
The heatwave ripened berries in hours rather than days, requiring a seven-days-a-week effort to pick, pack and deliver to shops and roadside stalls before the fruit went off. Supermarkets increased punnet sizes and demand for roadside sales rocketed.
The July rains brought a sharp drop in demand for the fruit. They slowed growth and brought another danger: high humidity that could bring mold and other diseases.
This has brought shortages of home-grown soft fruits. Growers are hoping for sunnier days in the weeks ahead, along with increased consumer demand and supply.
Martin Murphy who runs The Berry Farm near Clonroche, outside Enniscorthy in Co Wexford, says growing strawberries is a rollercoaster business.
“Strawberries are happiest at about 20-21 degrees,” he says, but they start to suffer in prolonged periods of 26-27 degrees.
He runs a “pick your own farm” with a few roadside sites, but says the industry has changed beyond all recognition in the past 20 years.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, you used to see relatives of farm families arriving to pick strawberries from plants on the ground. That is almost all gone, he says.
Strawberries are now almost all grown at waist height in coconut bark compost, imported from Sri Lanka.
“Commercial quantities of peat compost are not available any more,” he says.
The coconut bark compost, irrigated with water, provides good nutrition, he explains.
Jim Kearns who runs Kearns Fruit Farm, also based in Enniscorthy, is one of Ireland’s leading suppliers of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.
In the 1970s there were about 500 small farms growing strawberries in Co Wexford, but that has reduced to about 14 much larger producers.
His fruit farm covers about 30 acres of strawberries in polytunnells with a further seven acres under glass. He supplies almost exclusively to the major supermarkets including Dunnes, Lidl and the Musgrave Group that owns the SuperValu and Centra brands.
There is no doubt climate change is a factor. We are seeing extreme heat of 24-27 degrees. We don’t like that and neither do the plants,” says Kearns. If we had temperatures like that [around 27 degrees] for a long time, like to the end of August it would wipe us out.”
Mr Kearns says there is “no big volume” of fruit available due to the early ripening of berries in June and July but expects the shortage to be overcome and demand to increase with sunnier weather ahead in August.
He anticipates another problem: a shortage of fruit pickers.
He employs about 20 “excellent” workers from China, whom he houses and employees for the full two-year duration of their work permit. But he says the system would work better if workers were allowed a seven-month visa for casual labor.
Eamonn Kehoe, an adviser on soft fruit with agriculture and food development authority, Teagasc, is a Co Wexford man and remembers the Chivers jam factory and French-owned canning plants where fresh strawberries were exported in Tins.
He says “the Chivers check” was big for farm families every September for deliveries to the Enniscorthy factory that operated from 1967 to 2001.
Chivers said at the time the closure was due to the company not being able to source enough strawberries as growers turned to the fresh fruit market.
Teagasc research shows fresh strawberries are the main soft fruit crop grown in the State, exceeding raspberries in value by more than tenfold.
But the raspberry market is growing too. Use of different varieties and methods has extended the raspberry harvest from May to November. The crop is worth an estimated €4 million a year. In contrast, the apple market, which has been promoted in Ireland since the first “fruit as a farm crop” scheme in 1903, is dominated by imports.
While Teagasc says retail sales in the apple market are worth €131 million a year, the vast majority of this is imported, from countries as far away as Brazil.
Teagasc says while our climate is not optimal, it is suitable for growing apples of certain varieties. Suitable areas stretch along the east coast from Louth down to west Waterford, and inland to Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Mr Kehoe says the strawberry-growing industry is now very different from the family farms growing strawberries in the ground.
The scientific approach to cultivation and growing under cover has extended the growing season, increasing the value of the market by about 10 per cent a year.
When he started with Teagasc in the early 2000s, he said the value of the strawberry market was about €5 million a year but has risen to almost €50 million a year.
He describes the industry as “an adrenaline-fuelled, knife-edge” business given the challenges facing the sector, not least from Ireland’s changeable summer weather.
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