What made you decide to get into hydroponics?
I grew mushrooms for 18 years, which is regimental and is Controlled Environmental Agriculture (CEA).
I had the infrastructure and did not want to see it deteriorate, so I did a lot of looking around to see what I could do with the tunnels and came across vertical farming.
What were some of the biggest hurdles to overcome while setting up a hydroponics system?
Life a Head Ltd, who sold us the hydroponic system, gave us a lot of support, from growing to marketing the product.
The biggest hurdle was to get customers to purchase our product, as Emerald Greens was the first commercial vertical farm in Ireland. We had to educate consumers that you can grow plants in water indoors.
We found, when clients visited the farm, it was “seeing was believing”, which led them to purchasing (in our case, basil and micro-greens). Right now, consumers aren’t willing to pay more for Irish basil, even if the alternative is coming from 11,000 miles away and is harvested at least one week before it lands in Ireland. When you grow on a hydroponic system, the taste is stronger and fresher than any imported product.
The DAFM provided an NDP grant for only half of the project in 2020, so we had to work very hard to make sure the project was immediately successful. This ensured, when we applied for a grant in 2021, that we would be successful in getting a full grant for the next stage of the development.
You can produce organic foods in this system by simply buying in organic nutrients/inputs – can you explain how that works?
Yes, you can produce organic plants by using organic seed and organic nutrients.
The problem is that the certification bodies do not currently recognise hydroponics as the plants are not grown in soil. There is court case gone to the EU to allow vertical farming to come under the organic umbrella.
You are currently in partnerships with food service operations – where do you see the future of your farm going in the next five years?
We are currently in a relationship with Compass, Readychef and the Happy Pear.
My brother, Aidan O’Reilly, has come on board to look after sales and marketing strategy in 2021. Our plan is to have all eight tunnels full of growing modules over the next five years. We are doing a lot of research and development at the moment from growing different products to growing on different mediums. We are trialling aeroponic modules from Growtowers in Cork to grow leafy greens for a new customer. There are plenty of opportunities out there if you are willing to work!