Tongues were surely wagging and hedges surely were being gawked over when an Oxbo multi-crop harvester started moving around fields in Skerries this August.
The question! “What are them Hagan lads harvesting with that strange looking combine?
To find out, Irish Country Living travelled out to the Hagan farm to meet brothers David and John who, with their dad Jim, have moved their sweetcorn from a three man-power operation to a 173 horse-power one.
David Hagan is forthright; “As time went on, we just weren’t big enough for the spuds and investment was harder to do. So, we drifted out of it into crops, winter wheat, spring barley and oats.
“Around 2006 I heard about sweet corn and got a neighbour of ours to sow two acres with a normal Samco system. We got a small crop out of it that first year but it was a big learning exercise.”
This education continued over the next five years, the brothers learning, what worked, what didn’t work (slugs ate the whole crop one year), and how to do it small scale.
“Some of the hort guys around here, they tried it 20, 30 years ago and they all gave it up for a reason - it’s very, very difficult. We were lucky that we were so small for so long, because to lose an acre or two of sweetcorn is manageable, but to lose 30 acres is different because of the costs involved”, David notes.
Route to market
Both working full time off farm; John in Country Crest and David in Diageo, at the start, they were coming home in the evening and picking by hand, which John says was, “fine with an acre or two”.
But when they decided to expand they did so in conjunction with Sam Dennigan and Dolefoods Ireland.
“The retailers that are stocking the product [Tesco and Dunnes Stores] want Irish, they want to move to loose, away from packing plastic and long distribution chains. People might call the corn in the supermarket fresh but it’s imported. It’s been irrigated, it’s been in the transit system and then cold storage. Our wholesalers, Dennigans and Total Produce [Dolefoods] are max 20 kilometres away from us.
“One thing we always liked about the sweet corn was that you are not competing with another Irish farmer or dividing market share, it was always about 100% product displacement.”
On any supermarket shelf, you can pick up sweetcorn packed in plastic but the Hagans unique selling point (USP) is completely fresh corn. So the crop of sweet corn harvested the day of our visit at two o’lock was packed that day by five o’clock and was in stores the following morning.
After those first couple of years, the Hagans had to make a crunch decision “do we do this or do we not do this?”
They were conscious that although others had tried it and it didn’t work previously, that was not to say that they would not be “gazumped”, as David put it, if they didn’t back themselves to grow the business.
“So we made the investment. That machine comes from North America. It’s a specialist job and was purchased with the assistance of the horticultural grant, as was the processing line, which deserves to be called out.
Sweet corn is maize but not all maize is sweet corn. David explains the horticultural bit; “Sweet corn puts its energy into making sugar / sucrose while maize, for feeding cattle, its energy is starch. They are the same thing but with different management techniques.
According to the Hagans harvesting is the simple end; “All that happens to it is, we harvest it, put it through our little processing line, trim the butt off it and you get this lovely, self-protected by its own leaves, no need for packaging, corn on the cob. It just goes straight into a crate on the supermarket shelf like that.”
Sown mid-April to mid-May, with a short selling season - mid -August to the end of September - there is a degree of risk so the John and David are looking at different varieties to try and extend the season.
“At the moment, we probably have a six week season but if we could get a week earlier and a week later, by using other varieties, that would make a huge difference.”
We can talk about packaging and local food but we also know that consumers are guided to a return purchase by taste. Most prepare corn in a similar way - the final step being lashings of melted butter. While I would never knock butter, biting into this raw corn, in the field where it was grown, there is no need for it. The kernels are melt in the mouth buttery in their own right.
As well as 40 acres of sweet corn, eight acres of decorative corn - known for its multi-coloured kernels - are also grown. During autumn, particularly in the USA, it is used decoratively on table tops and in wreaths.
This variety is actually starch based, which David explains, in hot climates could be milled into flour but in Ireland we don’t get the temperatures to get it there.
Out in the field, John pulls back the leaves revealing the ears of corn, each kernel a vibrant colour ranging from yellow to orange, red and blue, purple and black. It is gorgeous. Again for the brothers, it was trial and error in terms of learning how to dry it down so that it can be stored indefinitely.
The backstory is that David was in Boston for a summer on his J1, he admits, “mostly playing football for a summer”. David and his group of friends stayed on, getting out of the city and down to the Amish community in Pennsylvania.
While familiar with the cornfields of America, David saw the decorative varieties that fall and how it was used. It was something that always stuck with him, he says, and as they are always looking for adjacencies, it fits well.
“People are used to buying pumpkin or gourds and now you can get your ornamental corn as well. It sweats our machinery a bit and it’s grown, it’s not plastic so it fits into that consumer demand for sustainable products.
Potential for the future
Although 80 acres is an above average sized Irish farm, it was never going to be enough to support two brothers with two young families in tillage.
John is positive but realistic; “we have carved out a market and we are trying to fill it. It takes a lot of investment to get to where we want to get to, but it’s diversification. In 10 years’ time if this grows to be a considerable business, [we could consider] coming back to manage it full time, but in the current climate you couldn’t dream of coming back to start farming 80 acres in tillage or horticulture.
Challenges in the horticulture sector are evident in the numbers leaving the sector but David says that in proving that they can grow this veg, they have created their own USP.
“We have to grow the business, it’s not just about staying at this scale. That gives us options for the future.
October has come so we may have missed the fresh corn “boat” for this year but you can get the Hagan brothers ornamental corn in Dunnes Stores and Tesco now right up to Halloween. Stock up for your “Fall” and Christmas decorations.
David is the regenerative agriculture manager with Diageo, working with Irish grain and dairy farmers on sustainability. “Making sure it’s [sustainability on farm] measured and managed, how it’s reported and that there is a profitable outcome for everybody in the supply chain. Diageo want to reduce their carbon footprint from the supply chain by 50% by 2030 so I am operationalising that. I’m having the conversations about what is the art of the possible. Yes there is a big thing [climate target] to move to but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s just get the ball rolling. ”
John is the purchasing manager for Country Crest. Like in any agribusiness that role encompasses a number of different jobs aside from just purchasing. ?I also look after the sustainability things, Origin Green, energy, the turbine, gas purchasing and looking at different options like that. That turbine, the first day that rotated, it was making money. The Hoey brothers are very futuristic, that was discussed in their boardroom in 2005, 2006 long before anyone was talking about green energy and sustainable energy. They could just see that it was a good thing to do.
The Hagans did a lot of research but according to David “if you look at anybody who’s growing sweet corn, they’re all running these machines”