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From the Garden: Supermarkets selling below cost veg is hurting farmers and it is bad for us all

Farmers protested outside M&S in Liffey Valley last week to draw attention to what the IFA called ‘predatory’ pricing models, writes Michael Kelly.

Image: Michael Kelly

ITS ENORMOUSLY DEPRESSING but here we go again, with another pre-Christmas column about supermarkets using aggressive discounting on vegetables to lure you in for your shopping.

This time its M&S that have drawn the ire of farmers, selling a range of the classic Christmas veggies like carrots, parsnips, spuds and sprouts below cost.

Farmers protested outside M&S in Liffey Valley last week to draw attention to what the IFA called ‘predatory’ pricing models.

The M&S in question had 2kg of potatoes available for 39c and Irish sprouts also for sale for 39c (even though they were flogging Spanish sprouts for €2).

This from a supermarket that talks about helping farmers to address ethical and sustainability challenges as part of its ‘Farming for the Future’ corporate sustainability strategy.

This has been going on for years of course, and every year we hear the same old guff from supermarkets and consumer groups – how it’s great for consumers that healthy veg is so cheap, particularly for those who struggle to put food on the table.

In reality, of course, the big supermarkets aren’t motivated by helping consumers to put food on the table (or concern for their health). What they really want is for the 39c spuds to get you in the door so you will hand over as much of your hard earned cash as possible filling your trolley to bulging point with other stuff.

At this time of the year, (and let’s be honest about this) that’s likely to be booze, mince pies and Lindt chocs. Fair play to you, I’ll be filling my trolley with them too – but let’s call a spade a spade about what’s really going on here.

This year our growers have endured yet another annus horribilis– major weather events including hurricanes, snow and drought meant increased costs and more pressure on already tight margins.

But this is not about wealthy farmers and growers grumbling about their profits being squeezed. These are extinction times for them.

We simply can’t continue to ignore the reality that these price promotions permanently lower the perceived value of vegetables and put growers out of business. In the 15 years between 1999 and 2015, there was a huge drop in the number of field veg growers in Ireland from 377 down to 165.

Anecdotally the actual number remaining is likely to be less than this 3 years later, but there’s no data on that yet. Bear in mind this is an industry that directly and indirectly employs up to 18,000 people (nearly 7,000 directly and an estimated 11,000 more downstream).

So, as always, there’s a long-term cost of cheap food. Eventually, we will be left with no Irish horticulture industry, leaving us vulnerable to market and climate shocks elsewhere.

Those irritating hard-Brexiteers last week said Ireland should be threatened with food shortages to soften our backstop cough – well, rather than being outraged by the suggestion, we should do what we have to do to protect our indigenous farmers and growers.

As consumers, if we want an Irish horticulture sector to continue to produce fresh, nutritious veg that feeds our bodies, tastes great and creates much needed rural jobs, then this and every Christmas we have to vote with our feet and our wallets.

The Basics: Sow Spuds

Though I typically take a break from the veg patch in December, some GIYers do sowing of early potatoes in the polytunnel or greenhouse which gives an extra early crop in April/May.

Plant sprouted seed potatoes at 15cm deep and 30cm apart. As plants emerge next year, they will have to be covered with a thick layer of fleece as they will be very vulnerable to nighttime frosts (even inside a polytunnel). A hard frost can kill a potato plant.

Recipe of the Week: Leek and Bacon Gratin

Leeks are the mainstay of the winter veg patch and this seems to have been a relatively decent year for them.

Here’s a lovely creamy, cheesy leek gratin that will warm the socks right off you. I sometimes boil a ham on a Sunday to use for sandwiches for school lunches for the week – on Wednesday or Thursday, the remnants generally end up in some class of a pie, tartiflette or gratin.

This one is perfect and leeks and bacon are a great combination.


• 125ml veg or chicken stock

• carton double cream

• 150ml milk

• 1 garlic clove, crushed

• 1 bay leaf

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• a knob of butter, for greasing

• 800g potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

• 2 leeks, washed and thinly sliced

• 175g sliced ham, chopped

• 85g cheddar, grated


Pour the stock, cream and milk into a small saucepan, add the garlic and bay leaf and bring to the boil.

Remove from the heat, cover and let the flavours infuse while you get on with the rest of the dish. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4/fan 160C.

Butter a 2-litre gratin dish well. Mix the potatoes, leeks and ham together in the dish, and spread out in an even layer.

Pour over the stock mixture and tuck the bay leaf in the middle. Season and sprinkle with the cheese.

Stand the dish on a baking tray to catch any spills. Loosely cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Test the potatoes with a knife – they should be just beginning to soften. Remove the foil and bake for another 35-45 minutes, spooning some of the stock mixtures over every now and again until the potatoes are tender.

Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

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


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