A voice for the field vegetable growers

23 Apr , 2015  

The chairman of the IFA’s National Field Vegetables & Protected Crops Committee, Matt Foley talks about issues affecting members.

A tomato grower based in Rush, Co. Dublin, Matt is into his second two-year term as chairman of the Committee which represents approximately 170 field vegetable growers in Ireland. The National Field Vegetables & Protected Crops Committee is a subsidiary of the IFA Horticulture Committee which comprises the chairmen of the various Horticulture Committees, including the Potato, Soft Fruits, Mushroom and Nursery Stock Committees.

The Horticulture Committee’s most important issues include commodity prices, input costs, producers’ incomes, retail activity, industry developments and the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme.

Matt, who is a member of the Bord Bia Horticulture Committee, is joined on the National Field Vegetable & Protected Crops Committee by vice-chairman Mark McCann, Joe Dockrell (Dublin), Colm Grimes (Dublin), Sean Mahony (Galway), Gerard Hanfin (Kerry), Paul Brophy (Kildare), John O’Shea (Kilkenny), Eddie Doyle (Kilkenny), Leo Dunne (Laois) and William Ruiter (Meath). In addition, Pat Farrell is employed as a full-time marketing executive who liaises with growers, supermarkets and Bord Bia.

“Our industry is worth hundreds of million euros to the Irish economy, despite being very small in comparison to other farm sectors,” Matt points out.

“Sadly, our numbers continue to dwindle as the growing becomes more intensive. Our numbers have fallen from over 1,000 15 years ago to less than 200 today. There are only a handful of tomato growers left and maybe half a dozen carrot and parsnip growers. In spite of this, the output is higher than ever and growers are really feeling the squeeze.”

Ireland’s field vegetable growers are mainly concentrated along the eastern seaboard where the sandy soil is particularly suited to growing carrots, parsnip, cabbage, cauliflower, swede, etc.

“Most of our members are concentrated in the north Dublin, east Meath, Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny areas. The soil is sandier than in other parts of the country and we don’t get much frost in the winter time compared to other parts of the country,” the Committee chairman says.

Matt goes on to explain how the past few years have been extremely difficult for growers, with many struggling to stay in business due to rising fuel and fertiliser costs, supermarket price wars and Ireland’s relatively high minimum wage rates.

“The livelihoods of Irish vegetable growers have been put in jeopardy,” a fearful Matt continues.

“We are facing many challenges because of higher diesel and fertiliser costs. These two inputs have a dramatic effect on unit production cost in fruit and vegetables, due to the extensive cultivation and harvesting required per acre.

“On top of that, some major retailers continue to engage in a relentless power battle for market share using fresh produce as a loss leader and cost of this back to the grower. That was highlighted last Christmas when some supermarkets were selling bags of vegetables for just five and six cent.

“Everyone knows that it is impossible to grow vegetables for such a paltry amount of money and we made our feelings known by buying the vegetables back in some supermarkets and handing them out for free to shoppers. There were no winners from the whole affair.

“We’d also like to see the minimum wage rates in the horticultural industry abolished and brought in line with key competitor countries. Minimum wage rates for labourers are 40 per higher than in Northern Ireland, which seriously affects our ability to be competitive in the marketplace.”

Matt runs Kilbush Nurseries in Rush along with his brother John, with the business having been set up by their father Matthew in 1929. Matthew is believed to have built the first glasshouse in north Co. Dublin and, in doing so, started a trend. Kilbush Nurseries, whose main customers are Tesco and M&S, can employ up to 20 staff at peak times.

Matt insists there is a lot to be gained from being an IFA National Field Vegetables & Protected Crops Committee member.

“As well as benefiting from the IFA promoting your agenda, we have a strong working relationship with the Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney and Junior Minister Tom Hayes. tWe are in a position to leverage and to sort out any individual issues. And despite last Christmas’ price war, producers generally enjoy a good relationship with the supermarkets.”

Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 2, June/July 2014