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Farming model that has made Ireland most food secure country

They say family is not just the most important thing; it’s everything, well, because it lasts forever.

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This maxim manifests in the Irish agriculture industry, where farming is a family affair, and agribusiness runs deeper within families.

Family agribusinesses rule the roost in the five-million nation people (and in some parts of Europe), perhaps one of the reasons why Ireland is the most food secure nation in the world.

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According to the Irish Food Board, the country produces food for 50 million people, which is ten times what it needs.

Most of the entrepreneurs currently running the multi-million shillings family agribusinesses are of third and fourth generations. For some, their grandfathers were growers of several crops, then their fathers specialised on one and the current managers are adding value to the produce or have taken the businesses internationally.

At Keelings Group, a fruit company located in North County Dublin, the agribusiness capital of Ireland, Caroline Keeling is the CEO of the firm started by her grandfather.

 “We are the biggest growers of strawberries and raspberries in Ireland. We have been in the business since 1930s. We grow the strawberries in glasshouses, harvest and pack for the retail outlets. About 90 percent of our market is local while the rest we sell in European Union countries,” says Caroline, who runs the business with her two brothers.

The family agribusiness that started by selling fruits at Dublin Market has transitioned into buying from growers, both locally and globally.

“We have presence in the United Kingdom, France, Singapore, Holland and China and procure produce from 42 countries across the world, including from Africa.”

Caroline, who studied chemistry undergraduate and further holds a Masters in food science, has mastered the art of growing strawberries.

“We grow the fruits in peat to extend the harvesting season. If you grow on soil, you will be lucky to have two seasons. To grow the plants, we make a hole, place the bare root plant so that the crown is at peat level. The plants mature in two to three months,” says Caroline, noting their glasshouses where they grow the fruits sit on 10 acres.

Watermelons from Kenya

Keelings Group expressed interest in buying watermelons from Kenya after meeting a business delegation from the country, during a trip supported by the Embassy of Ireland in Nairobi.

Keogh’s Crisps, also located in North County Dublin, is another huge family agribusiness dating back to 1832.

The Keogh’s brothers, Tom and Ross, run the agribusiness started by their grandfather. Ross is a director of the company while his brother Tom is the managing director.

“Our grandfathers started by producing a variety of crops and selling them at Dublin markets. In the 1960s, the firm built glasshouses and became known for tomato growing and production,” says Ross.

His father diversified to growing cauliflower, sprouts, broccoli and potatoes as he modernised the company by building the first Irish cold store in 1975, enabling them to supply produce all-year-round.

“After surveying the markets and identifying our strength, we narrowed down to potato production and value addition in 2011, renaming the company from Peter Keogh’s and Sons to Keogh’s Crisps,” recounts Ross

The company currently makes crisps for the niche market that include the Emirates Airlines.

“The potatoes are washed, graded and sliced without peeling before they are fried at 1500C, flavoured and packed for the market. We export to 14 markets across the world,” says Ross.

The Hoey’s family farming heritage dates back to 1850s, and they run County Crest, located also in North Dublin.

Michael and Gabriel Hoey, fourth generation family members, run the agribusiness that has specialised in growing and packing fresh potatoes for the retail chains.

“We farm potatoes on over 3,000 acres and oversee another 4,000 acres of crops for other farmers. We also import and supply various farm produce, including onions, which we pack and sell to retail chains that include Tesco and Supervalu,” says Tony Doyle, the commercial manager.

The company supplies the produce to supermarkets in packs branded names of the retail chains.

“Out of the several products we sell, only one is in our brand name, a strategy that is working for us,” says Doyle.

Unique opportunities

In Raphoe, Donegal, the countryside of Ireland, John Rankin, a potato grower, stands on the edge of his farm and looks further down where the crop stretches on over 300 acres and blurts out, “I am not a good farmer now. My son is, but he is on holiday. I wish you could talk to him because he has learnt a lot about potato production.”

Jamie is a third generation farmer, his grandfather having established the farm, and handed it down to his son, Rankin’s father.

Now Jamie is in the process of handing it over to his son as he ages. The family has been growing potatoes since 1890, farming the Roosters variety, the most popular and high-yielding type in the country.

“We grow the crop on six-year rotations on different sections of the farm to curb diseases and boost the quality of soil. I rotate the potato with wheat, barley or grass for dairy and beef cattle,” offers Jamie, who is keen on handing over the farm to his son.

He harvests the produce and supplies to processors like Keogh’s Crisps and County Crest, with the potatoes ending up in the retail market.

The Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine notes that the average farm sizes in the country are 33 hectares, with most of them held by families. There are a total of 137,500 farms sitting on 4.46 million hectares.

Lisa Doherty, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Ireland, Nairobi, says the Irish family farming heritage holds crucial elements of rural sustainability that include established networks of social support, cultural traditions and localised human-ecological knowledge.

 “Family farming businesses have unique opportunities and challenges that emerge from an important differentiating factor – family involvement. They are inclined to think on a long-term basis for a range of reasons, an important one being a desire to be multi-generational.”

“Heritage is a huge strength of Irish family businesses and family affiliation is leveraged to connect with consumers,” she adds.

According to Lisa, the family farms in Ireland, similar to Kenya, are the backbone of rural communities and are the major factor in the success in agriculture production and export.

Culture of farming as a family

“The older generations have invaluable farming expertise and local know-how while the younger generations are tech-savvy and have strong marketing instincts. This mix of experience and skills has helped companies like Keelings, Keogh’s and Country Crest to become highly successful in this more globalised era.”

Kimani Rugendo, the proprietor of Kevian Industries, the makers of Pick N Peel fruit juice, says family farming is the best model for food security.

“In Ireland, this model has ensured that the country is food secure as the farm is passed from one generation to another,” he offers.

With the model, the issue of land subdivision or fight for wealth among children, which is rife in Kenya does not arise.

“Here, a man has to split his land among his five to ten sons and daughters. If he had 10 acres, the subdivision makes sustainable farming uneconomical because of the small plots. It is one of the reasons Kenya is struggling to produce food.”

Rugendo, however, acknowledges that the culture of farming as a family must be nurtured through the generations so that the children can be prepared to take over.

“It is time we teach our children how to farm as a family if we are to be food secure. This will also curb cases of land sub division and enable them co-exist as they farm. Instead of sharing out the land, why can’t they share the money coming from it?” he poses.

However, the downside of the model in Ireland and other parts of Europe, is that if one’s father or grandfather was not a farmer, then one cannot become a farmer because of the high cost of land.

Some farmers are also facing challenges as their children decline to take over from them.

Michael Oriedo, writes for Daily Nation of Kenya

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