RATHCORMAC FRUIT FARM TO CLOSE
John Howard of Sunnyside Fruit Farm in Rathcormac has confirmed that his years of growing fresh produce are to come to a close this summer.
Speaking to The Avondhu this week John said that, unlike many businesses that have been forced to close in the current recession, he had decided to wind up his home grown fruit trade some time ago.
“To be honest I decided to give up four or five years ago, to wind down growing fruit,’ John admitted, “I made this decision at the height of the so-called Celtic Tiger years.”
Speaking to John it is clear that there were a number of factors that combined to force his hand. Sunnyside was established in 1982 while John was working for Rathcooney Fruit Farm in Glanmire, where he was employed for four years before giving his own venture his full attention in 1983.
“It was easier to start a business then, and we had great ambitions. The local shops and supermarkets were good to us at that time,” he explained. He saw his business expand steadily to the point that he secured 50 acres for his fruit growing.
“But then we saw huge changes, not just in the country, but in how fruit was marketed. Supermarkets dictated what went on and dominated the business. It came to the point that we were forced to send our stuff to Dublin for labelling, everything was centrally distributed. Most supermarkets had these centres in Dublin, Musgrave’s have one in Cork, but mostly it was in the capital. In my opinion that was the beginning of the downfall for the Irish fruit grower. The freshness of fruit is important and now you had two or three days lost because of this labelling and then the extra costs of transport and mileage added to the price.”
The added work in securing approval from the numerous regulatory bodies also took its toll.
“The rules and regulations often overlapped, you would have the Department of Environment, Department of Agriculture, Bord Bia all wanting inspections, the paperwork became a nightmare. Of course regulation of food is very important, I accept that but there was so much duplication, the same work two or three times over. It was just crazy, but it wouldn’t pay to get someone in to do that side of the work for you.”
The abolition of the Groceries Order is a particular ‘bee in the bonnet’ according to John, who said that while the customer made savings, it was at the expense of the already struggling producers and not the supermarkets.
“Every summer when the Irish strawberries came along, as soon as they are out, one of the supermarkets has a special on them, and the ones that didn’t have a special this week will be sure to have one the next week. While the customer makes savings it is the grower subsidising these,” he explained.
John further explained that as part of his decision to wind down the fruit growing aspect of his business, no full time staff will be let go this summer, as he is the sole constant worker now on the farm.
Sunnyside Fruit Farm was a huge source of employment for local teenagers in the summer, however, with the farm once boasting a part time summer workforce of 70 and 4 permanent staff, though by this summer that number has dwindled to just 10, the last 10 to ever pick the fruits of the farm.
John’s farm has a cold store in which 250 pallets of frozen fruit is constantly stocked. It is not the end of John Howard’s involvement with the fruit industry, however.
“Throughout I built up a sideline in importing frozen fruit,” he explained, “Produce here is far too expensive. Over the years I built up contacts in Holland, Poland, China – all over. I have been importing and distributing frozen fruit to commercial interests here, juice bars, smoothie makers, jam producers and so on.”
While it is good news that John will continue in the business, Sunnyside Fruit Farm was synonymous with Rathcormac, a local place where fresh fruit was grown, picked in season by teenagers employed on their summer holidays for over a quarter of a century. How has the news been received by locals?
“To be honest I haven’t told many yet, I’m hoping this article will do it for me to save me having to repeat myself again and again,” he said, laughing briefly, “but the few I have told are shocked, they just can’t believe it.”
“I will continue to have a cash and carry here in the shop every Saturday between 2 and 5 o’clock. I’ll be selling frozen fruit by packs of 2.5kg, where as before I’d sell by the kilo. People can buy from me at cash and carry prices regardless of whether they are a business or just buying for personal use,” he added.
Touring John’s site he points out the parcel of land he has dedicated to his other life passion. As a member of Rathcormac’s Game & Wildlife Club John is growing a wild meadow, a natural habitat which is complemented with a duck pond in which both wild and tame ducks, a water hen nest complete with eggs, blue dragonflies, frogs and a variety of creatures can be found. He also has a pen where he is rearing partridges. The club has been saving to buy their own land for years, and hope to develop a similar habitat in which they can hunt.
“We make no bones about it, we are a hunting club,” John said, “but we also want to conserve as much natural wildlife as possible. It would be fair to say that mink would kill more wildlife than we do. We do want to encourage natural wildlife in the area. We are looking for anyone who wants to sell a few acres in the area to get in touch with us.”
John added that the years of fundraising for the club is still ongoing as they pursue their dream of securing their own grounds. Perhaps someday, when Sunnyside Fruit Farm is but a distant memory, the fields surrounding the village of Rathcormac can become synonymous with a new venture, at which John Howard hopes to play a part once again.
Donations to the Rathcormac Game and Wildlife Club can be made to their account in AIB Fermoy, account number 93-60-81 13135121.
Thursday 2nd July 6:46pm