There has been more interest in cucumbers since those boys took over then there has been in my 40 years of growing.”
These are the words of Jim Carty who, with his cousin Tom Collins, have been growing cucumbers on the family farm in north Dublin since the 1970s. Hard-working men, Jim and Tom developed a successful and profitable business over the years, building glasshouses for cucumbers at a time when cucumbers were considered an exotic product.
But the twist in the story since they retired has gotten people talking. Instead of the family farm being passed to the next generation, three local lads with no connection to the land are growing the cucumbers of the future.
Cousins Gary and Sean Weldon, along with Shane Halpin, are putting their stamp on the business with new ideas, innovation and a fresh perspective.
Sean explains how their business – now branded as Welgro Produce – is proving that family isn’t always the future of farming.
“We all would have known Jim and Tom growing up. My father Enda is a Brussels sprout farmer and we all have farming connections so we knew of the cucumber farm. But then back in 2019 we heard rumblings that Jim and Tom wanted to retire and were looking for someone to take over the business.
“I was actually in New Zealand at the time working as an accountant but myself and the lads looked into the business and its potential and we figured it was an opportunity we had to pursue.”
This wasn’t an off-the-cuff decision. As our interview progresses, it becomes clear that this was an astute business move, having looked into the customer base, on-farm resources and competition.
Rare but experienced
Interestingly, Welgro Produce is only one of two Irish cucumber growers that the team are aware of. They also had 80 years of combined experience from Jim and Tom in the handover.
Shane says: “Their last season of growing cucumbers was 2019 and the agreement was we lease the land and all the equipment from them.
“The official handover was in 2020 and from the day we arrived the two of them were up here every day with us. They’d arrive up in their overalls ready to work and as the months went on, they gave us so much knowledge and information on the business.
“They really wanted the business of growing Irish cucumbers to continue on. Now that we’ve gotten into the swing of things and restrictions have lifted, they aren’t up here as much, they are actually starting to enjoy their retirement,” he laughs. “But nine months in things are running to plan with their help.”
In fact, the business has 15 staff members, 10 of which are full time and the team also includes Normunds Bergmanis who worked with the previous owners for 10 years.
Gary says: “Our knowledge of cucumbers was pretty limited when we started but it’s an interesting product. We couldn’t get over how fast they grow.
“Our first batch was planted on 6 January this year and was ready for shops within five weeks and that growing time speeds up as the weather gets better. Cucumbers that were planted in May were ready within three weeks. Having grown up on farms where crops would be in the ground for months, it was a real eye opener.
There is steady demand for the product. “We’re supplying Sam Dennigan and Keelings but it’s Dunnes Stores that take the majority of our produce. They wanted an Irish cucumber on shelf, even though they could buy Dutch cucumbers in at half the price. But our cucumbers are still selling at the same price as the Dutch cucumbers – 79 cent – so it’s not costing the consumer more to support Irish.”
It’s worth checking the label that you’re buying Irish as the difference really is in the taste. Sean says: “Cucumbers grow fast but they have a long shelf life – up to four weeks – but the taste does deteriorate over time. It could be two or three weeks between a Dutch cucumber being picked and landing on shelf.
“For us, it is two or three days and there is no comparison in the freshness. The skin is crispier, the taste is juicier and when you take that first bite it’s like you can feel the cucumber burst.”
In one of their first innovative moves, they are diversifying the offerings to consumers. The standard cucumber that people are used to seeing in shops is about 300g. Welgro is now also offering a half cucumber for small families. But what is really doing well is the large cucumber which weighs in about 500g. It’s suiting larger families or people that consume cucumbers nearly everyday in smoothies and salads.
Sean says: “Our initial sales exceeded our expectations and have remained consistent.”
Although pubs and restaurants still aren’t back with indoor dining, the lads in Welgro are still working on getting more business from Irish chefs.
They have also taken to social media so people can follow the cucumber growing season. Shane says: “It’s fascinating to see them grow so fast. We are training the cucumbers to grow up the string and you need to twist them around the string every day or two. Even when you come in after the weekend, you’ll see the difference – there could be three inches of growth.
“And it’s such a sensitive plant. A hot day can result in a spurt whereas a cold day will see a lull. Their reaction is incredible to watch and we want to bring people on the journey more with us through social media.”
You can follow Welgro Producers on Facebook and Instagram (@welgroproduce). Check out Bord Bia’s website to see what’s in season.