Greens Berry Farm in Gorey, County Wexford is a fruitful family enterprise that has been synonymous with quality growth for the past two decades. We travelled to the sunny south east and met up with the personable founder to get an insight into this remarkable success story.
NSAI and Bord Bia approved since 1996 and with an emphasis on taste and quality, Greens Berry Farm grow fresh, juicy, premium quality Wexford strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and gooseberries on their fruit farm in Gorey. More than 70% of their fresh fruit produce is sold directly to consumers from their own farm shops – Tinnock Fruit Farm Shop and Courtown Road Fruit Farm Shop – along with new potatoes [nice floury British Queen], jams, juices, preserves, etc.
The original Tinnock Farm Shop is situated at the farm gate, two miles north of Gorey on the N11 and is easily accessed by taking the Gorey exit from the new Gorey by-pass. The farm shop at Courtown Road is located in its own private setting midway between Gorey and Courtown Harbour at Tomsilla Farm on the R742.
Greens have chosen the best varieties for their farm shop sales, with a strong emphasis on superb taste. Food miles are eliminated because the fruit is always picked and sold on the same day.
Reflecting on the genesis of the business, John notes: “In the 1970s, there were 720 strawberry growers in Wexford and each had an acre beside their cottage and grew for jam processors in the UK. There were collection points where the fruit was picked up and our family used to do that at home, so that’s where I got the interest from.
“That acre used to produce about £3,000 worth of strawberries. Today, there are only four or five large strawberry growers in Wexford; some of them switched to mushrooms, but they disappeared too.”
After securing a BComm and H Dip John worked in management consultancy before joining the ranks of Glanbia, where he remained for over ten years. But he didn’t like working indoors and was restless…
“I started to work part time with strawberries again while I was still at Glanbia and I realised that it was a viable proposition, so in 1995 I went full time strawberry growing. I was lucky in that my wife was teaching and her support has been crucial in helping get the business off the ground.”
In the late ‘90s. Irish strawberry growers were still growing in open fields and the produce went to processors. The going rate was €1,000 per tonne but John realised that he could earn three times this if he could get his produce to the side of the road. Fresh fruit was where the real money was. Once he decided that this was the best way forward, the business was transformed.
But a lot of restructuring was required. “We had 100 acres and 100 employees in the early 2000s and we were still growing with no cover, so you were completely dependent on it being a good summer. Labour also became tight and it was almost impossible to find Irish people who wanted to pick fruit – it still is. We now have 20 acres [approximately 100 tunnels] and 25 people working here, some of whom have been travelling to Ireland for the summer for 15 years. We have a full team of Polish and Slovakian pickers who come back every year and you can rely on them to show up at 7:30 on a Sunday morning if you need them.”
“We bought a property in Gorey to run a restaurant for the summer,” John continues. “We converted the stables to a farm shop and there was space for accommodation for our pickers to stay. In the early 2000s, we were focused on getting bigger and we were supplying the supermarkets and multiples. About 75% of our produce was going to the likes of Quinnsworth, Tesco, Dunnes, Aldi and Lidl. Today, it’s the complete opposite as 75% is going through the farm gate.
“Our focus is on taste and quality. We grow high-quality, great-tasting produce and that has been instrumental in the growth of our farm shop sales. We literally pick it in the morning and sell in at the gate on the same day, at field temperature, with the sugar levels still up and taste at its optimum.”
The remaining 25% of Greens Berry Farm’s fruit goes to Avoca and select specialist fruit and veg shops in North Wicklow and South Dublin.
John absolutely refuses to compromise on quality. “There are two different types of strawberry available in Ireland. One is the traditional summer fruiting strawberry, which yields only half a kilo per plant … but we focus on that to compete on taste. The other is the ever-bearing strawberry, which is similar to imports from Spain, Italy, Morocco and you could get 1.5 kilos from that and they will produce from May until October non-stop. Production is higher but taste is poorer. We go for lower production, higher quality and better taste.”
Could he not make more money by dropping standards and producing / selling more fruit? “No chance. I’m proud of what we do. If you promise something, you like to follow up on it. We’re extremely happy with the feedback we receive. We’re not a major producer but our strawberries have quality and taste and are worth the money. We grow sustainably, to Bord Bia standards, and we pay our taxes and staff and make a living from it. The farm gate shop and the second one are in very good locations and they are very busy all summer.”
The season of course is a short one and all the profits have to be made within a limited window of opportunity… “We start at the end of May,” John reveals. “We open the tunnel doors and let the crops mature naturally. We’re then busy producing and selling fruit from June Bank Holiday weekend through until the end of October, so it’s a five-month season. We’d have 35 on the farm in the middle of summer, five or six during the winter.
“During a normal winter, we would let the staff go in December and January, then get them back in to clean up the crops and plant new ones. Of course, this wasn’t a normal winter as we had to do a lot of work to repair storm damage to get back to where we were last summer, which was an unwanted setback.”
Is cash flow a problem when all the income is concentrated into less than 50% of the calendar year? “It’s an awful business for cash flow,” the Wexford man confirms. “The last strawberry is sold on the 31st of October and that’s it until June Bank Holiday. We have been improving our equipment – sheds, storage, tunnels, refrigeration – every year, too, and would have had enough profit to carry us through this year were it not for Storm Emma.
“It’s a high-risk business. The average age of growers in Wexford now is in the high 50s and there are no newcomers because it’s risky and the margins are so tight. Our son Conor works on the farm during the summer and it was a good experience for him to be born into a family that’s self-employed. You could be working 70-80 hours a week during the summer, which isn’t ideal, but we have managed to pay the bills and make a go of it. Clearly, it’s not for everyone.”
Looking to the future, John says the focus will be on fine-tuning the operation. “It’s hard to get into this but very easy to get out of it,” he concludes. “We have a good name now so I’d like to keep fine-tuning and weed out any aspects that aren’t justifying themselves. You’re always looking for efficiencies. Everything is bought and paid for and better equipment makes life easier.
“We’re hoping to keep selling at a reasonable margin and to keep our staff in work – and maybe work a little less ourselves. We have seven or eight Irish girls working at the farm gate shop and they are super assets to the business.
“Our levels of efficiency have improved dramatically already. Years ago, we could produce too much or too little but now we tend to get it just right. It’s running smoothly but we know there’s always room for improvement.”
Greens Berry Farm,
Email: [email protected]
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 6 No 5, August 2018