Rasp­berry fields for­ever at Stile­bawn

DAVID MED­CALF FOL­LOWED THE SIGNS FROM KIL­MAC TO THE FARM OF ALAN CON­ROY, WHO MIXES REAR­ING SHEEP WITH A MORE UN­USUAL AC­TIV­ITY – GROW­ING RASP­BER­RIES

Wicklow People - - INTERVIEW -

NEXT time you stay at the pent­house suite of the Ritz Carl­ton ho­tel in Pow­er­scourt, take a mo­ment away from the cham­pagne and caviar to look out the win­dow. Away to the south-east, on the far side of the val­ley, you may spot a field which re­sem­bles a vine­yard viewed from your long dis­tance van­tage point.

How­ever, the plants on Alan Con­roy’s most un­usual hectare do not pro­duce grapes, ei­ther black or green. They are rasp­berry canes, planted in long rows run­ning up and down the field, bear­ing lus­cious fruit.

Con­roy’s is the only com­mer­cial rasp­berry grow­ing en­ter­prise in the County of Wick­low and one of very few in all of Ire­land.

It is the last sur­viv­ing re­minder of a ground break­ing lo­cal ini­tia­tive which dates back to the 1960s – and it looks set for a healthy fu­ture.

Prob­lems with plant care which be­set the busi­ness in the nineties are al­most for­got­ten and new, hardier va­ri­eties have come on stream.

The 2017 crop, now com­ing to a con­clu­sion, has been one of the best that Alan has ever ex­pe­ri­enced. He can­not ex­plain the bumper, ear­lier than usual re­turns which fol­low a mild win­ter suc­ceeded by late frost, a com­bi­na­tion which is the re­verse of ideal.

The clas­sic recipe for heavy yield is plenty of cold snaps in the win­ter months giv­ing way to a warm spring – but he has given up mak­ing pre­dic­tions.

The hilly ter­rain here­abouts is most ob­vi­ously suited to sheep farm­ing but around 60 years ago neigh­bours Moly and Anthony Dunne be­gan to ex­plore al­ter­na­tives.

Chivers, the jam mak­ers, were look­ing for Ir­ish rasp­berry sup­pli­ers and the Dunnes per­suaded sev­eral other landown­ers in the Kil­macanogue area to sign up with them.

Among those who rose to the chal­lenge were the Con­roy fam­ily – the late Jimmy, who died in 2014, and his wife An­nie who still takes a lively in­ter­est at the age of 92.

The first canes went into the ground in time to be­gin pick­ing fruit in 1960, with at least four lo­cal farms in­volved.

One of 50-year-old Alan’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries is help­ing to bring the har­vest down from the hills to a de­pot at Walkin­stown in Dublin.

From an early age, he was obliged to pick rasp­ber­ries in sum­mer, in among the squads of women who ar­rived with their chil­dren to earn pin money. Though the oth­ers have fallen by the way­side, he and his fam­ily have main­tained the tra­di­tion and built up a loyal fol­low­ing among a dis­crim­i­nat­ing clien­tele.

Once Chivers pulled out, they kept their canes and con­cen­trated on grow­ing for house­holds in­stead.

Rasp­ber­ries have al­ways been a de­light on their own, served with cream per­haps, and they make the best of jam, while they also fit in well with the mod­ern smoothie craze.

At the height of the sea­son this sum­mer, a steady trickle of cus­tomers make their way to the home bun­ga­low where the garage has been fit­ted with a cold room.

Many of them have been mak­ing the trip here to the town­land of Stile­bawn for decades and they leave de­lighted with large pun­nets of glo­ri­ous berries.

‘I am the last one stand­ing now,’ re­marks Alan who has ploughed a lone rasp­berry fur­row here since the eight­ies. ‘I am the only one in North Wick­low. The last oth­er­wise was David John­ston in New­cas­tle – and there is a ‘pick-your-own’ in Dublin at Rath­farn­ham.’

He has no in­ten­tion of let­ting the gen­eral public near his pre­cious canes, pre­fer­ring to leave the har­vest­ing to the spe­cial­ists.

A fam­ily of Pol­ish work­ers has re­placed the lo­cal ladies of yes­ter­year, and they have been do­ing the job most ef­fi­ciently, com­ing to re­side on the farm for a work­ing hol­i­day.

The per­son­nel may change ar­riv­ing from Poland slightly each sum­mer, with cousins re­plac­ing cousins, but the boss knows that he will have a re­li­able squad of half a dozen pick­ers.

They have to be flex­i­ble in their at­ti­tude, ready to let the va­garies of the Ir­ish weather dic­tate their hours of work so that the berries ar­rive dry in the cold room. Large rasp­berry pro­duc­ers in other parts of the world have mech­a­nised the process with equip­ment which shakes the plants and catches the fruit as it falls.

There are no plans to in­vest in such soul-less hard­ware at Stile­bawn, just as there is no move to fol­low the trend to move pro­duc­tion un­der the cover of poly­tun­nels or glasshouses.

‘This was a sheep farm and it still is,’ says Alan Con­roy of his hilly hold­ing with heavy marly soil which runs to 80 acres. ‘It is size­able enough but you need some­thing else. The rasp­ber­ries are that some­thing else.’

As a sheep farm of such mod­est pro­por­tions, with no side-line, it would strug­gle to be a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise of sub­stance but the fruit al­lows him to re­main full-time.

‘Farm­ing is very cycli­cal and the beauty of the rasp­ber­ries is that they pro­vide early in­come.’

RUN­NING a flock of 200-plus ewes is im­per­sonal, with lambs reared to be brought to a fac­tory so that he will never make con­tact with the con­sumers, whether they are in Port­laoise or in Paris. Alan ap­pre­ci­ates the fact the peo­ple who love what he grows in the rasp­berry field find their way to his door each year.

One woman makes a day of it ev­ery sum­mer, trav­el­ling all the way from Mullingar to Kil­macanogue to stock up.

What is not dis­posed of from the garage-cum-de­pot is care­fully loaded into trays and brought to shops around North Wick­low and South Dublin.

Be­ing a rasp­berry pro­ducer means, not only know­ing how to work the land, but also de­mands that he must be a sales­man. His late father was a wizard in the role, per­suad­ing butch­ers and fish­mon­gers and all sorts of un­likely re­tail­ers to carry his stock. Alan is less au­da­cious.

‘Rasp­ber­ries are harder to sell than straw­ber­ries,’ he re­ports. ‘We sup­ply a pre­mium product

but there is only a cer­tain de­mand.’

He finds it per­plex­ing that he must com­pete with im­ports from places such as Hol­land, Spain, Morocco and even Cal­i­for­nia.

But those who look out for the Con­roy’s la­bel in the shops or who come to the door recog­nise that they are pur­chas­ing a top class product.

He con­fesses that, as a con­firmed junk food ad­dict, he does not ac­tu­ally eat many rasp­ber­ries but wife Jeanne and their young daugh­ter Elaine make up for him. A teacher work­ing a short commute away in Dalkey, Jeanne slips from the school class­room at the end of the sum­mer term to mar­ket­ing one of her favourite fruits.

She is meets many of the cus­tomers and is re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing the web­site which comes com­plete with rasp­berry recipes.

‘I have to taste them,’ in­sists the Kerry na­tive, ‘and Elaine likes them with yo­gurt.’

A suc­ces­sion of wet win­ters dur­ing the nineties al­most put paid to Con­roy’s rasp­ber­ries, af­fect­ing the root sys­tems of the plants.

Alan gives credit to his Teagasc ad­viser Harry O’Brien (since suc­ceeded by Ea­monn Ke­hoe), who came to the res­cue with a new sys­tem of cul­ti­va­tion.

The re­vised regime dic­tates that canes are grown in drills, sim­i­lar to the drills used in po­tato pro­duc­tion, thus rais­ing them above any wa­ter­log­ging. The drills are cov­ered with plas­tic, with holes at reg­u­lar 18-inch in­ter­vals from each of which three stems are en­cour­aged to grow.

The stems shoot up to be tied with the wire that runs at around eye level and ty­ing the canes to the wires is an off-sea­son task of stu­pe­fy­ing bore­dom.

The stock – Glen Moy is the favoured va­ri­ety – is brought in from a spe­cial­ist fruit nurs­ery in Eng­land and there is a two-year wait from plant­ing to ini­tial har­vest­ing.

With care­ful win­ter prun­ing and sum­mer wa­ter­ing and oc­ca­sional fer­til­is­ing they should be good for ten har­vests, quite dif­fer­ent from most crops on most Ir­ish farms.

Alan has had to learn the tricks of this very spe­cial­ist trade in the field as his for­mal train­ing at War­ren­stown Col­lege was in com­mer­cial farm­ing, not in hor­ti­cul­ture.

The Con­roys have no plans to ex­tend the amount of land de­voted to fruit.

They de­cided long ago not to in­vest in jam mak­ing ma­chin­ery and do not in­tend knock­ing on the doors of the big su­per­mar­kets in or­der to drum up more de­mand.

They al­ready have their hands full, with Alan of­ten putting in 16-hour shifts at this time of year.

Af­ter all, he re­ceives reg­u­lar re­peat or­ders from the shop­keep­ers of Del­gany, Foxrock and Glasthule, as well as drop­ping off a batch of trays to his neigh­bours at Avoca Handweavers.

Then there is a stall to be set up each week­end at Kil­rud­dery.

Rasp­berry lovers need their fruit.

MAIN PIC­TURE: Alan, Elaine and Jeanne Con­roy. ABOVE RIGHT: Rasp­berry pick­ers Andzej Szczeg­niel­niak, Joanna Wy­chowalek, Jacek Typ­i­alk, Wik­to­ria Pepasin­ska, Danuta Pepasin­ska and Katarzyna Fredo. BE­LOW: Elaine Con­roy tucking in to some of the freshly picked fruit.

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