Roadside sales of Wexford strawberries are back by as much as 20% this season, according to some producers in the county.
Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal this week, several producers suggested these reduced sales, along with labour and energy costs, are creating challenges for their businesses, with a number stating they plan to curtail production in 2023.
Director of VM Fruits Vincent Murphy, who produces strawberries for roadside sales and supermarkets, said roadside sales are “definitely back about 20%”. He said a lot of consumers are “getting used to buying strawberries” in supermarkets and due to “potato sales going through the floor”, the roadside sales haven’t got the same “pickup”.
On labour shortages, Murphy said “this year, in May, we’d no one” and “it’s hard to get the young lads”. He said there was “no shortage” of labour during COVID-19 but that “this is the first year it is really hard”.
Murphy highlighted the role Ukrainian refugee workers have had in sustaining strawberry production and sales. “Only for them, we’d be under pressure.”
The Ukrainian refugees, who are only permitted to work up to 12 hours a week, are “looking to do more the whole time”, according to Murphy. He said he is “dying to give them more work” too.
Owner and director of Greenhill Fruit Farm Eamon Crean also said sourcing labour “has been difficult” and that his HR team have been “exhausted”.
Crean said his roadside sales are back 15% because “the cost of living has gone up and people are going to be more careful with their money”.
However, encouraging sales, he said this year’s strawberries are “very sweet” and the “quality has been fantastic”.
He said strawberry production has a “high turnover” and that there is “not much room for error”. He said in dairy farming there might be 100 moving parts but in fruit production there are 1,000 moving parts.
Crean said his energy costs are up “around the 40% mark” since Christmas and warned that due to these challenges, which have created “an element of fear”, he “definitely won’t be looking to produce more” next year.
Owner and director of Danescastle Fruit Farm John Murnagh said “our biggest problem is the price of everything”. Murnagh’s system involves heated glasshouses and he too is questioning the merits of sustaining strawberry production levels next year due to rising input costs, asking: “Do I just cut back and heat less? Do I heat the glasshouse or do I forget about it?
“That will affect the yield. Everyone will be looking at cutting back,” he said.
Murnagh described how the cost of fuel to heat greenhouses is up over 40% since January, going from 28c/l to 40c/l. He said carbon dioxide is “quite important” for his system and that the only way to get this is through burning expensive kerosene.
On supermarket responses to rising input costs, Murnagh said: “It’s like pulling teeth. It’s even worse. It’s unbelievable.”
He described 1c and 0.5c increases he has received, stating: “You’d be better off [if] they didn’t give you anything. It’s only an insult.”
Producers say they hope the school holidays and the start of Wimbledon this week will improve strawberry sales.