The 2015 National field vegetable census will reveal the extent of the contraction in Irish horticulture, with an expected decline of up to 50% in the number of commercial growers in Ireland. Compounding the decline recorded in the 2009 census and leaving as little as 150 commercial growers in Ireland. The serious decline in the number of the Irish vegetable growers over the past number of years is the result of market practices which have push out smaller growers.
In March this year vegetable farmers protested against below cost selling by major retailers, which after high rainfall reduced yields left many vegetable growers in severe financial difficulty. Below cost selling has reduced the profit margin for vegetable growers to levels which for all but the largest producers are unsustainable. Based on current profit margins the IFA estimates that any farm less than 50 acres would be unable to turn a profit as a conventional vegetable farm. Based on the most recent data the 80,000 acres of horticultural land in the country is divided among 9,600 specialised field crop farms, with over 15,000 people employed in both primary production and processing.
In light of the significant difficulties facing vegetable growers the IFA have called for in increase in the farm gate price of vegetables. For consumers who have to deal with the rising cost of living alongside lower disposable incomes discounts on food have become a central part of household budgets, while farmers need to see an increased price to remain viable consumers are primarily motivated by cost, as such retailers competing for market share have been using discounts to attract customers.
In order to ensure both the continued viability of Irish vegetable farming and the availability of affordable vegetables for cash-strapped consumers intervention beyond merely pressuring retailers to increasing farm gate prices (and thereby subjecting consumers to price hikes). Instead any intervention must meet the need of all stakeholders, such as simultaneously addressing the issue of below cost selling alongside examining the impact of austerity on increasing consumer demand for cheaper food.
Small scale alternative?
Conventional vegetable farming has become an operation of substantial scale, with tighter and tighter margins. Meaning that while the vegetable farming sector is a significant employer it continues to be a low paid one with the low farm gate price paid to producers leading to a situation where farmers see keeping wages low as key to business viability. as pressure rises to increase pay in line with the rising cost of living and the much trumpeted economic recovery it is only fair that farm workers are not left behind. How then can the needs of consumers, farmers and farm workers be balanced.
For an increasing number of growers, and consumers(that can afford it) organic vegetables offer a solution. The increased crop diversity of organic compared to conventional vegetable growing allows growers more security as they are not reliant on a single crop. Likewise the current financial supports available for farmers who want to go organic can help to offset any additional costs.
The government supports available help make going organic a viable option for a growing number of farmers, with a particularly strong uptake among beef farmers. For conventional vegetable growers however the organic option holds less appeal as growing vegetables on farms over 50 acres without the use of pesticides means substantially higher labour costs. Large organic farms do exist but they tend to be the exception that proves the rule, instead the emerging market for organic vegetables has been primarily capitalised on a new breed of farmers working on smaller acreages and supplying directly to restaurants and forgoing the supermarket partially or all together by selling to consumers through farmers markets and veg box schemes instead of relying on the supermarkets alone.
While this type of farming has worked for some farm businesses and is a sector which shows all the signs of continuing to grow the vast majority of Irish vegetables continue to be grown in the conventional manner and sold to supermarkets where low pricing has become the order of the day and is expected by cash strapped consumers. Such conditions make the organic transition with the associated higher production costs a non runner for many Irish vegetable growers.
As conventional vegetable farming is contracted on a ever decreasing number of large farms dependent on the prices set by supermarkets, small scale organic vegetable farm will increasingly become a more attractive option for new vegetable farmers in particular who seek to capitalise on the growing demand for organic produce. At a time when many rural areas are struggling economically and dealing with problems associated with a declining and aging population the opportunity for people to make a living on small farms, often less than 10 acres, by growing organic vegetables ought to be welcomed by all those concerned with the future of rural communities. What is needed then is for the state and various farming bodies to recognise the opportunities of the emerging organic market and put supports in place for small scale organic growers.