There are many out there that feel growing potatoes is a relatively easy procedure, but to grow a particular breed of Ireland’s national food takes something special.
The potato is an important part of our history dating back beyond the time of the famine and to this day, it is still an important part of our diet.
Ireland is renowned for growing some of the best potatoes in the world given the soil element here, and there are many potato ‘hobbyists’ up and down the country, while there are also many who practice potato growing for a living.
One such family run business is Cork based Castlecor Potatoes who have been supplying a large customer base with a wide variety of potatoes for 40 years now.
Castlecor Potatoes owner Ned English speaks to this month’s edition of Irish Tractor & Agri about the origins of the business and he gives us an insight of what it takes to stay alive in this competitive business.
Ned studied agricultural science in U.C.D before he started teaching at Agri College, little realising what lay ahead for the future.
“My uncle was running the family farm when he passed away and he left it to me. I was teaching in the Agricultural College at the time and initially I taught and farmed for a while, before deciding to leave my teaching post on concentrate solely on the farm,” said Ned.
“At the time, we were growing potatoes and onions, but soon after, we just focused on the potatoes. At the time, there was a great price for potatoes per tonne, but there was a price collapse in the seventies, which hit us hard, although fortunately we could sustain it. We were farming a small acreage at the time and the following year, the price did increase and we then rented more land in order to produce more potatoes as we couldn’t rotate it on our own land every year.”
Castlecor Potatoes now harvest up to 400 acres of potatoes and supply a wide range of customers from LIDL’s main distribution centre in Cork and Newbridge, Co Kildare to a number of local shops around the county and further afield.
There are two main types of potato grown by the family run business as Kerrs Pink and Rooster are the most popular potato amongst Irish folk.
“Our customer base has grown considerably over the years. We put a lot of time, effort and money into the business to ensure that the customer gets what they want.
“The land and the procurement of suitable land is the most difficult decision to make, but fortunately, we have natural soil down here. There are many challenges to be faced on a daily basis and it is an industry that is certainly not for the faint hearted. You have to enjoy a challenge.
“The process of growing potatoes has been continually refined over the last 40 years and there are constantly changing needs in response to the specific needs of our customers.
“At one stage, flavour and floweriness was all that the customer looked for, in addition these days are appearance and condition, which are vital components now also.
Ned admits that there has been a huge fall in consumption levels in recent years and he feels that the situation needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
“Consumption levels have dropped considerably over the last number of years and there is a genuine concern within the industry. This country produces a natural product that is amongst the best in the world and I do believe that there is room for us to export more potatoes to foreign markets. It’s something that we have done in the past and it is something that we are looking at doing again.
“At Government level, there is good support for potato growers, but possibly it does needed to be promoted more in the shape of an advertising campaign. In fairness, we have received some grants over the years, so on that front there is not much more that they can do.”
Ten years ago, Castlecor Potatoes only employed two people. However, these days, there are 16 employed by the firm as they continue to grow on an annual basis.
“My wife Mary and son Edward are involved in the business and we employ a number of local people here as well. Not only do we pick our own potatoes, but we wash and pack them as well in our packing facility at the yard here. We like to employ local people as it is a rural area and jobs are not that plentiful around here.”
Castlecor pride themselves on doing their bit for the environment also. “We grow all of our potatoes in the rich and fertile lands of Munster and we wash and pack our products at our modern packing facility at Castlecor, Mallow. We take our responsibility to the land and the environment very seriously, re-cycling and re-using where we can and setting high targets for energy conservation.”
Not only do Castlecor harvest potatoes, but they also harvest in the region of 600-700 acres of grain every year too, which means that they are busy all year round.
So it is surprising to learn that Ned has other interests and many GAA followers will know the Cork native as the man who lead Limerick side Dromcollogher-Broadford to become their county’s only ever Munster senior football champions in 2008, while he has worked with a number of clubs and indeed Waterford footballers in the past.
“The GAA would be a massive part of my life and regardless of how busy we are here; I would always make time if there was training on. I am currently with Cork side Clyda Rovers and many aspects of business can be implemented into coaching a team.”
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 6, November 2014