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
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.