“Local means fresh and the fresher the strawberry is the tastier it is. The Irish strawberry is traditionally sweeter because of the cooler nights, they are slower at ripening so Irish strawberries are a bit like wine,” says Mark Conway of Conway Summer Fruits.
Located in Loughgall, Co. Armagh, Conway Summer Fruits has been passed down from generation to generation and offers employment in the rural area. Mark who is a member of the Horticulture Forum, grows a range of soft fruits but strawberries are his main crop.
“Conway Summer Fruits is a family business; it has been going since my father and his brothers started growing. They dabbled in everything from mushrooms to fruit and vegetables.
“I specialise in soft fruit, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries; I grow apples too.”
On the day of the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s visit, Mark is busy picking strawberries which are now ripe and ready to be sold.
Soft fruit growers such as Conway Summer Fruits, work very closely with the food supply chain. Throughout the year Mark produces an early middle and late supply of fruit to meet the demands of the market and his customers.
“I like to get them sold the day they’re picked or the following day, but their shelf life would be about three or four days – that’s when they’re in their prime.
“I supply retailers, restaurants and hotels, they love to buy local. Customers come to the farm to buy as well. It’s good for the customer to see where the fruit has come from, where they have been grown. By selling from the farm we are shortening the supply chain and buying on-farm is becoming more and more popular.”
Mark grows his soft fruits inside as it would not be sustainable to grow outdoors due to the unpredictable temperament of the Irish weather.
“The first pick (of strawberries) is usually the middle of May, that’s in the glass houses.
“Prior to being picked, it crops for approximately six weeks. That crop is then disposed of, a new crop is planted and will be ready in 60 days.
“We have two crops in the glass house and there is a mid-crop in the Spanish tunnels. We have a crop from the static tunnels in June too,” says Mark.
“The raspberries start cropping at the end of June and I have autumn fruit (polka raspberries), they crop in November.”
Learning the growth process for soft fruit takes time and each crop requires a different approach.
“Blueberries have really increased in popularity. They need a very low pH. The feed system that you use for strawberries wouldn’t work with blueberries. Strawberries have a pH of around five point eight, for blueberries, approximately four and a half. It takes time to learn the trade and skills of soft fruit production not to mention building a business.”
There are only 25 - 30 soft fruit growers in Northern Ireland and they support and learn from one another. Going forward, Mark would like to see meaningful financial support for NI horticulture producers being given on a more regular basis.
“There are lots of opportunities out there and I would like to see more financial backup.
“Growers in the Republic of Ireland receive support from Bord Bia and the government, they are given grants which are ongoing. Here, grants are once in a blue moon.
“ROI soft fruit growers get help from agronomists as well which is a plant doctor.
“They visit once a month and can see what is going wrong with the plant or what is going right. An independent agronomy service would be a big help for us in Northern Ireland, even if they were able to visit once every couple of months.”
If you would like to find out more about Conway Summer Fruits, contact Mark at email@example.com.