Going organic, goes green, going big – lettuce leaf giant McCormack’s Farm explains why they grew organic spinach for the first time

McCormack Family Farms has continued to strengthen its position as the largest grower of lettuce leaves in Ireland

Completing their first harvest of organic spinach.

This marks a new step into organic farming for the Meath company and they already claim to have become Ireland’s largest producer of organic spinach.

The second generation family business based in Boycetown, Kiltale has been in business for almost 40 years and saw an opportunity to provide the retail market with a consistent supply of organic Irish spinach on an unprecedented scale.

Previously, supplies depended on imports to a large extent all year round; and in the summer there were delivery problems.

The new offering has been in development for two years, with land preparation, sowing and harvesting the first crop on a 10 ha site.

“Traditionally, we’ve grown all of our produce conventionally and imported organic spinach from Italy,” says Managing Director Stephen McCormack.

“When the weather is hot in Italy, supply can be unreliable, leading to bottlenecks on our end and disappointing customers.

“We wanted to avoid that by cutting out imports, a trend seen across the industry.”

History repeats itself for the company. In the 1960s, Stephen’s father Eddie was selling vegetables at Dublin Corporation’s fruit and vegetable market.

Many of the produce for sale were imported, but Eddie, a graduate of Warrenstown Horticultural College, Eddie, realized that much of what he saw could be grown locally.

Established in 1984, McCormack’s Farms began growing vegetables. Stephen took over the business in 2000 and has diversified into lettuce leaves and herbs.

The Company now operates 700 Ac arable land including 3 Ac Polytunnels and 3 Ac Greenhouses. McCormack’s Farms employs 100 people off-season and 135 during peak season.

Though bio was uncharted territory for McCormack’s, Stephen decided it was an avenue worth exploring.

“We felt the need to try it out and have inventory ready if sales did pick up,” he says. “Our journey to organic started two years ago.

“With the help of the Department and the Irish Organic Association we have converted the selected plot for this growing season.

“We were fortunate that this prime land became available in our area and on May 16th of this year the land was considered organic.

“We started sowing the spinach in June and started harvesting in July. We aim to harvest over 100t from this plot.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English attended the harvest and said: “

I am impressed by their ambition, their determination and their innovative strength.”


Stephen with Minister Damien English

Stephen insists the decision to try organic farming wasn’t a financial one.

“As part of our ongoing sustainability commitments as a certified member of Bord Bia’s Origin Green initiative, we are pleased to say that by growing organic spinach we are saving 132 tonnes of CO2 emissions during the Irish season compared to importing from further afield” , he says.

“The organic option will cost more for the consumer, not because we’re making a huge margin, but because retailers know people are willing to pay more for it.

“The producer receives only 15 percent more for organic products than conventional ones.

“Competition among retailers seems to be increasing all the time. I often wonder how many outlets a country needs. New stores are opening all the time in our hometown of Trim.”


Much of the harvesting process is automated

The McCormacks also farm 280ha conventionally and Stephen doubts the entire land will ever go fully organic, but he hopes to convert more blocks of land in the years to come.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go fully organic – it’s a slow process – but we aim to add more land every year,” he says.

“It’s hard enough to grow these lettuce lines conventionally, let alone organically.

“A major disadvantage of organic farming is the absence of pesticides. If a field is attacked by a disease or pest, we may have to ignore it entirely.

“We typically only spray when absolutely necessary, but it’s a good resource to have. This option is not available to us at Bio.


The spinach is harvested

“Ireland already has some of the strictest rules on the use of pesticides and these restrictions have made us better growers. If we don’t have that option at hand, we learn to forego it.”

Stephen says the main factor that will determine the amount of land set aside for organic produce in the future will be retailer demand.

“This year has been a learning curve,” he says. “We overcame several issues and will take these learnings with us in the future.”

Stephen says Brexit has worked in his company’s favor as some lines are no longer imported.

“We’ve been able to meet the market demand that came from blocking these producers,” he says. “One example is the 200,000 edible flower heads that we ship every week.”


The harvested spinach is unloaded into crates

Growing and harvesting is just part of the business for a company the size of McCormack’s. Logistics, long-term planning and human resources are an essential part of their success.

“We’re ideally positioned, with a good road network going in all directions,” says Stephen.

“We have our own transport company to quickly transport our product across the country.

“We deliver to 24 counties every day and have eight full-time drivers working for us.

“We generally monitor trends in America and Australia to come up with ideas for the next grow. In terms of new lines, they are usually 4-5 years ahead of Europe.

“The labor supply isn’t too bad at the moment as we have a lot of college students working on the farm. There could be a problem towards the end of August and September as these students return to the cities for their studies.

“There is no such thing as minimum wage on the farm anymore. There would be no one willing to work if the money wasn’t right.”

Stephen hopes attitudes towards the horticultural sector will change in the future.

“It’s not the tedious work it used to be. A lot of what needs to be done now is done through automation,” he says.

Questions and Answers: “The average consumer is looking for a healthier, more sustainable product with every purchase.”

What were the costs associated with switching from 10 ha to organic?

At around €1,000/ac, the leased land for organic land costs almost twice as much as conventional land.

Seed costs are similar, but organically approved fertilizers are slightly more expensive.

In terms of the harvest itself, from seed to harvest, the cost isn’t much different.

Instead of using pesticides we had to buy a €100,000 gas powered weed burner and some weeding by hand was also required.

We also had to buy new crates to avoid mix-ups between organic and conventional spinach at the factory. The organic crates are green and the conventional ones are orange, so you know which one it is before you even read a label.

Have you used any grants or co-payments to help with the transition?

We have received a grant from the Ministry to cover the cost of the new gas burner. Otherwise, the conversion was completely financed by us.

Do you intend to further expand your organic division?

We plan to convert another 2-3 ha to organic every year.

This is primarily driven by supermarket demand, which in turn is driven by what the consumer is interested in and what they buy.

There has been a big shift in consumers. A combination of cooking at home due to Covid-19 and a greater awareness of healthy eating, more and more people are looking for these products.

I believe the average consumer is looking for a healthier, more sustainable product with every purchase.

Where can consumers buy your organic spinach?

Spinach is our largest line and we are currently harvesting 5t per week.

Our product is available at Lidl under the McCormack Family Farms brand and will also be available at Tesco, Dunnes Stores and SuperValu under their own brands.

To know it’s from our farm, just look for the Ireland label of origin. Going organic, goes green, going big – lettuce leaf giant McCormack’s Farm explains why they grew organic spinach for the first time

Fry Electronics Team

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