Entering his final year of a four-year term, IFA Potato chairman Thomas McKeown looks back on his duration in the role when speaking to this month’s edition of Irish Tractor.
The Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA) is Ireland’s largest farming representative organisation. They have looked after the wellbeing and the interests of Irish farmers in all sectors for more than 60 years.
One of the sectors is potato growers who play a massive part in all our lives as the potato is an integral part of the Irish diet for centuries.
While Thomas is entering his fourth year as IFA Potato Chairman, nothing could have prepared him for 2020 and the early part of this year.
The Meath native has the distinction of being the first (and hopefully the last) person in his position to contend with a pandemic during his term.
“The first two years in the position were all about travelling around the different regions in Donegal, Cork, Wexford and Slane beside me here. I used to head off early and go to different growers just to see what methods they would be using, and it was a great experience,” said Thomas.
“That all changed last year when the pandemic hit and I had to take a crash course in using a computer to be honest as all our meetings took place through Zoom.”
Many may feel that the pandemic didn’t affect potato growers, but Thomas stressed that it had both a positive and negative effect on their members.
“For anyone that was growing potatoes for home use as in bagged potatoes, the market went through the roof, while anyone supplying potatoes or peelers as we call them to the hospitality or catering sector suffered greatly and it nearly put a lot of places out of business as there was very little trade there at all with catering companies having no work on.”
The IFA Potato Chairman stressed that it was essential to support local growers in these times and at times, he felt that this was not the case in regard to retailers.
“If the current situation has taught us anything, it is the importance of supporting local producers. Growers have absorbed all of the extra costs associated with additional measures required on farms. Growers must be encouraged to continue producing high-quality crops at a fair price that sustains production.”
“With the collapse of the foodservice sector due to Covid, there is no market for a rejected product, and it is ending up as animal feed”.
Thomas felt that retailers are misleading the consumer by offering what they deem to be the perfect potato. They are rejecting potatoes which are perfectly edible and contributing to the issue of food waste.
“They should act responsibly and show solidarity with their suppliers, rather than taking advantage and trying to profiteer in this unique market situation. If retailers want to continue to take only a limited amount of the potato crop, they will need to increase the price paid to farmers considerably.”
At Government level, Thomas feels that they are being supported in the Dáil, but he added that on occasion the Department of Agriculture could do more to support.
“There would be issues from time to time with the department alright. I suppose the fact that we have had five Minister for Agriculture in the past year doesn’t help the matter either, but in fairness Charlie McConalogue and I’ve been impressed by him so far, he hails from a farming background and that does make a difference.”
The issue of some sprays being delisted is a subject that Thomas feels strongly about as he insisted that on occasion they department are too quick to delist certain sprays.
“I understand that some sprays need to go, but the problem is that there is nothing to replace them with. There has to be a situation where if one spray is delisted then there is another to take its place and that is not always the case.”
Thomas is a great believer in getting a fair deal and fair price for potatoes, something he believes is not always the case when growers are selling their produce.
“Look, everyone wants to turn a profit and I understand that, but growers deserve a fair price for the product, it’s as simple as that. I don’t like to see it when they don’t. As a potato grower I’ve been in that situation and it’s not a nice feeling. Like I said, we are all trying to make a living out of this, but there is no reason why we all can’t do it fairly.”
Located in Castletown, Co Meath, Thomas and his brother Bernard plant about 70 acres of potatoes every year, most of which are Roosters and Kerr Pinks, while they also grow some Golden Wonder, Queens and Records.
“We are second generation potato growers as our father was at it for many years before we took it over. Times have changed over the years with regards to machinery and everything else associated with growing potatoes. Around ten or 15 years ago, about 95% of our potatoes would have been bagged, now about 90% are boxed instead. We keep our machinery well maintained and that is something we do around this time of year.
“We would operate on a seven-year rotation, while we also grow a lot of seed corn as well. Both products complement each other given when they are harvested.
“In July, we will harvest the first of the potatoes and they will be Queens which are planted before the rest, we use a sprouting tunnel for that.”
Between work and his role as IFA Potato chairman, you could imagine that Thomas has little time for anything else, but as a staunch GAA man, he is the manager of the Wolfe Tones intermediate hurlers who are awaiting the 2020 IHC final, which was postponed from last year, due to the Coronavirus.
He is also proud to be involved with the Wayne Smith Memorial Tractor Run which started five years ago. It is a charity event in memory of the late Wayne Smith who passed away from Muscular Dystrophy with the funds raised helps families affected by the disease.
Throw in the most important thing in his life, his wife and children and you wonder how there are enough hours in the day for him to devote his time too.
“It can be very busy alright,” he laughed. “To be honest my brother Bernard is a massive help in that regard. He is always here on the farm, while I could be off down to Cork or up to Donegal or have to head off with the kids to training. He has his own family too, but he just gets on with the work and doesn’t complain, too much,” Thomas concluded with a smile.
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First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 9 No 2, March/April 2021