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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019
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From the garden: 'When buying veg, always seek out Irish vegetables and try to avoid price promotions'

In 15 years more than half of Irish field vegetable growers have stopped production, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

I WENT ON a sobering visit to a couple of our biggest field veg growers this week:

Paul Brophy in Kildare who is the largest grower of broccoli in the state and the Weldon Brothers, Martin and Enda, in Swords who supply the majority of the brussels sprouts crop.

Their operations are truly massive and impressive, and like most of the veg growers they have had to specialise and go large in order to compete. 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 three years later, but there’s no data on that yet. Either way, that’s a pretty tiny number of growers who are responsible for our entire veg output. Interestingly, the output levels in edible horticulture haven’t dropped in that same time period – so in other words the remaining growers have ramped up their production big time.

Commercial veg growing was always a tough game, but they are facing particular pressures now.

Climate change

The effects of climate change, and its accompanying extreme weather events, have a huge impact. In the last 12 months alone they faced three catastrophic weather events – Storm Ophelia, the snow associated with Storm Emma and worst of all, the six weeks of drought this summer. The latter was particularly difficult because for many it meant buying expensive irrigation systems and having to pump water to often remote fields just to keep plants alive.

A fifth major weather event happened almost unnoticed last week when Dublin Airport reported its coldest October night since records began.

Because of global warming, polar air is travelling further south earlier in the year than it used to. At the tail end of a dreadful growing year, this is bad news for broccoli growers, because it almost instantly stops the growth of the plants. (On the other hand, it’s probably good for the sprout grower, since frost is known to sweeten up the sprouts).

The bottom line though is that climate change is creating additional uncertainty and cost for growers and with our veg output concentrated in the hands of ever fewer growers, it makes our indigenous food chain very vulnerable indeed in the years ahead.

The extreme weather alone doesn’t explain why so many growers are leaving the market. That alas, is largely down to the fact that there is so little margin left in selling the veg.

Below-cost selling

Competition from cheaper imports plays a part, as does below-cost selling and discounting in supermarkets. In latter years, we’ve all seen the aggressive pre-Christmas price promotions on fresh-from-the-field veg like sprouts and carrots for sale for as low as five cent a kilo.

It’s typically the supermarket that takes the hit on this using it as a loss leader to draw you in. Some have been known to lean on growers to share the burden too.

Of course consumer groups will say it’s great for the consumer to have access to cheap, healthy food. But these are short-term benefits. In the long-term, these promotions set ever lower benchmarks for the value of veg, which will drive more growers from the industry.

Ultimately we will be left with less choice as consumers and more and more imported veg. That’s bad for jobs here at home, and reduces our access to healthy, seasonal, fresh food and the kind of taste that can only come from just-picked veg.

Most importantly, the Brophys, Weldons and the like are producing food that is everything food should be – incredibly good for us, nutritious, seasonal, fresh, local and creating jobs.

We should be paying a fair price for that instead of discounting it. As always we have power as consumers. When buying your veg, always seek out Irish vegetables and try to avoid the price promotions remembering that there is always a cost to cheap food down the line.

The basics – growing yacon

Similar to potatoes, yacon is grown from tubers from last year’s crop.

Yacon grows two types of tubers – the knobbly ‘stem’ tubers that grow just under the surface around the stalk of the plant and look a lot like Jerusalem artichokes, and the larger, smooth edible tubers that grow outside of these.

The former are the ones used for propagating the following year’s crop, while the latter are for eating.

In the late autumn, after frost, dig the whole plant carefully – the yield should be 5-10 large tubers per plant. Snap these off. They will store in a frost-free shed in a box of sand and will sweeten further over time.

Cut the stem of the plant back to about 10cm and store this ‘crown’ with the knobbly root tubers attached for next year’s crop, also storing in sand.

Separate the knobbly tubers in spring, making sure you have a growth point on each. Plant each one into a large pot with good quality potting compost. Place the pot on a heated bench or in a sunny place in doors.

Plant out in the ground in May, being careful of the weather – a good guide would be to only plant them out when you’re happy to plant out your tomatoes. Space one metre apart. Water regularly.

The plants can be slow to get going but in the summer will get to a height of 2m. As it’s a hungry plant, it’s a good idea to ensure the soil is good and fertile with plenty of added compost or farmyard manure.

Recipe of the week – Yacon and blue cheese salad

It’s not easy to improve upon the famously fabulous combination of walnuts and blue cheese but the addition of yacon, with its succulent sweet crunch, really lightens and freshens this deliciously different lunch.

This recipe from Mark Diacono’s A Taste of the Unexpected (Quadrille, £20) serves four as a starter.

Ingredients

  • Small handful of shelled walnuts or pecans
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 medium-large yacon
  • Handful of salad leaves
  • 180g blue cheese, such as Dorset blue vinney, roquefort or gorgonzola

For the dressing:

  • 1 tbsp apple balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of flaky sea salt
  • 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Spread the walnuts or pecans out onto a baking tray and toast in the oven for 8–10 minutes, shaking halfway through, until lightly coloured – keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t burn.

Fill a bowl with water and add the lemon juice. Peel the yacon, cut into slices and toss into the lemony water to prevent them from discolouring.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar with the salt before adding the olive oil a little at a time, whisking all the while until smooth. In a bowl, lightly dress the salad leaves in a little of the dressing and divide between four plates.

Arrange the sliced yacon on top, crumble over the blue cheese, then trickle over the rest of the dressing. Scatter the nuts over the top and serve immediately.

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About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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