Writes Leo McMahon
As we well know from history, ‘the humble spud’ is deeply cherished by the people of Ireland and today, Griffins Potatoes, Carrigaline is a company held in the highest regard by the people of South Cork and far beyond for the quality of its product, reliability and a standard of service that’s second to none.
It’s all down to the hard work of three generations of a family who have been growing potatoes for at least 75 years and The Carrigdhoun Newspaper recently met with two of them, Jim Griffin and his son John at Boycestown over a well-deserved break towards the end of harvesting.
Asked how the business began, Jim said: ‘My father Sean started growing potatoes commercially in 1944 after getting three seed varieties from another grower: Record, Alpha and Voren, and he picked Record. Other varieties then came on the scene such as Kerr Pinks.
‘At that time, the home place was Brownstown (not far from Boycestown) and it was a mixed farm with cattle, pigs and grain. He started off in a small way but after a couple of years, was growing four to five acres and would take the potatoes himself to the market in the Coal Quay in Cork by tractor and trailer.’
Jim recalled his father telling him he bought his first tractor, a 25ph David Browne Fieldmaster plus a plough and cultivator in 1946 at Cross’s Garage, Sullivan’s Quay, Cork for £440, a considerable sum at the time. Their tractor today, a Massey Ferguson, he pointed out cost €100,000 and the Grimme harvester around €200,000.
The family at that time comprised of Jim’s parents Sean and Bridie and his five brothers and five sisters (all hale and hearty): Joe, Jack, Cyril, Liam, Noel, Kathleen (Kiely), Mona, Una, Loretto (Coombes) and Rosarie (O’Leary), all of whom must have needed a big pot of potatoes at meal times!
In addition to the main crop Kerr Pinks, his father started growing early variety potatoes Home Guard and British Queen.
1950s Ireland was an insular decade of low productivity, incomes and mass emigration but for Sean Griffin and fellow growers, there was a lucrative export market to Britain for a few years, when it was in short supply of the crop, because Home Guard could be grown earlier in Ireland than England due to its milder climate.
This meant planting in February, often when weather conditions were far from ideal, in order to benefit from three weeks of the British market in May. After that, early varieties grown in Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, West Wales would be ready.
Other growers in South Cork at that time doing likewise included Oliver and Peter Thompson and Harry Geary, Currabinny and the Newenham’s, Coolmore.
‘I was born in 1951 and in the late ‘fifties, we used to look forward to planting the early spuds because we could get a few days off from school at Fountainstown. The drills would be closed by a horse and my job was to lead it along the top and stop it walking on the seed potatoes.’
Before the tractor was purchased, said Jim, the furrows were made using a horse and plough followed by planting from a sprouting box from which the seed, often called a ‘scellan’ (potato cut in half) would be planted by hand, one by one. Fertiliser called ‘Super’ was popular in the ‘fifties along with farmyard manure of course.
Maincrop potatoes, such as Kerr Pinks and Golden Wonder and in more recent years, Rooster were sown in March and April.
During the growing period, drills would have to be earthed up and weeded (by hand one time but later by tractor) and there was regular spraying with ‘Bluestone’ and washing soda, using a budget knapsack. Eventually, a horse sprayer with a barrel that could cover five drills was used and after that a tractor with sprayer.
‘Blight caused mainly by high humidity, can destroy potatoes in a matter of hours and when you see it it’s too late’, said Jim who pointed out that it used to be necessary to spray DIthane 945 and Shirlan every week but now its nearer to every fortnight with a more eco friendly product.
At harvest time, a tractor and potato digger would lift the spuds but each had to be picked off the ground by hand.
It was very hard work bearing in mind that acreage grew steadily; there were also cows to be milked twice a day, cattle to be fed and lots of other jobs on the farm. Up until the late 1980s, when a Kverneland harvester was purchased, the entire crop was picked by hand.
In addition to family members, Jim recalled that during his youth, there were very good farm workers such as Jack Fitzgerald and Paddy O’Brien.
Along with his father, Jim worked in the business with his brothers Jack and Joe and in the mid-1970s, he took over the potato growing while his brothers ran the farm at Brownstown. In 1978, he married Rose and purchased the land at Boycestown. His father passed away in 1992.
Jim recalled that when he started out on his own, he had 70 to 80 acres of potatoes. Today it’s around 200 acres, mostly in the Carrigaline area but also in East Cork. All of the land is rented and it’s important to try and get new ground every year in order to ensure quality and avoid disease.
After purchasing the land at Boycestown, he built a shed which was half the size of what you see today and with John, has been building up the business ever since with a refrigeration store (at 3 degrees) for about 2,500 tons of potatoes, a smaller shed and a pack-house for grading, washing and packing.
This is essential, explained Jim, because it’s a year round business supplying the market. What is harvested in October could be on the shelves the following June, thanks to correct storage of stacked wooden boxes, each containing around one and a quarter tons of potatoes.
While the growing calendar is March to October, the remaining months continue with grading, washing and bagging, plus delivery, as I saw on a tour of the impressive state-of-the-art complex at Boycestown.
‘Weather is a key factor’, said John. ‘A drought results in a poor yield but a bumper crop isn’t much good either, because if everyone else has the same, there is over supply and the price won’t be great. In 2009, a wet autumn followed by severe frost resulted in 40% of the crop not being harvested.’ A decade on, 2019 was a good growing year with a total yield of around 3,000 tons.
Griffin’s have two suppliers of seed potatoes – Irish Potato Marketing (IPM), Dublin and McCreight, Newry. Kerr Pinks seeds come from Scotland but Rooster is Irish.
In recent years, said Jim, the company has been growing ‘chipping’ potatoes such as Maris Piper and Markie which have a higher yield and are ideal for frying. Sadly, around 90% of what Irish customers purchased in fast food outlets here are potatoes imported from England (80,000 tons per annum) even though it’s quite possible to grow these in Ireland.
This has mainly come about by the fact that Irish beef is exported on trucks that return with potatoes. Griffin’s are gradually breaking into the market and Bord Bia, Teagasc and the IFA are currently looking at how the situation can be improved for up to 400 Irish potato growers (about 20 in County Cork) particularly against the background of Brexit.
It’s all hands to the pump whatever the season at Griffin’s Potatoes, which formed a company in 2017. It comprises of Managing Director Jim and John who is Secretary, their respective wives Rose and Martina in charge of administration plus three full time workers Marek and Zibey (who are brothers) and Eddie. Jim’s daughters, Carol and Marie, are always on hand to help out when needed. They are particularly involved in the promotion of the company, exhibiting at local festivals and taking part in supermarket promotions.
The company engages contractors for planting and harvesting: Richard Gotto, Lloyd Forbes and Lyndon Smith, the latter of whom also does barley and tillage work.
Price is dependent on supply and demand for the company whose customers include SuperValu, Centra and Tesco retail outlets in the county as well as individual shops and greengrocers plus the wholesale trade in Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary.
The overheads for potato growing are significant, said John and Jim. These include renting land, de-stoning, fertilising, spraying, paying contractors to plant and harvest, upkeep of stores and machinery and delivery trucks electricity, fuel, packaging, insurance and labour.
The cost of getting an acre of potatoes into storage is around €3,500 based on a yield ranging from 10 to 18 tons depending on variety.
Jim said he was happy enough with the price this year and last. The business itself continues to pack potatoes in its own distinctive and attractive bags of Kerr Pinks, Roosters, British Queens or Golden Wonders at 2.5kg, 5kg, 7.5kg and 10kg.
Larger bags are paper and the company, being conscious of the emphasis on climate change, is currently moving away from plastic packaging to bio-degradable and uses environmentally friendly and sustainable methods in planting and spraying.
It’s also worth noting that Griffin’s Potatoes are accredited under the prestigious Bord Bia Sustainable Horticulture Assurance Scheme (SHAS).
Jim and John said Griffin’s are fortunate and very thankful to the local landowners from whom they rent the land and a great staff.
Like his father, John, aged 40, said he got involved in the family business during his youth, helping out after school and during the holidays. Having attended school in Carrigaline and Kildalton Agricultural College, Co. Kilkenny, he joined his father full time. He has also followed in his footsteps by serving on the IFA National Potato Committee, of which Jim is a former Chairman (2008-09), and believes that a factor in the firm’s success has been his father’s ability to move with the times.
Hopefully, there will be a fourth generation in the family business with John and Martina’s children Cian (aged 12), Matt (10) and Katie (7).
Griffin’s Potatoes sponsor Tracton GAA Club and Jim, (Brownstown his birthplace, is in that parish and Boycestown is in Carrigaline parish), is the current chairperson of Roberts Cove Vintage Festival.
Reflecting on what has been another good year of trading, Jim said the company would like to supply more fast food outlets.
John for his part has diversified into rearing Hereford (Whitehead) and Aberdeen Angus bullocks for beef an advantage of which is the fact that potato waste is a good source of food for cattle. The Griffins also grow a little barley and grain.
But what about the future for the humble spud; once the staple diet of the Irish but now facing increasing competition in a cosmopolitan food world? Jim and John argue that it’s easy to prepare, can be cooked and served in many forms (boiled, steamed, mashed, baked, roasted, chipped and flavoured with garlic, cheese etc.), is high in Vitamin C, an ideal source of potassium, fibre and energy, gluten free and fat free. (See more on www.potato.ie), so overall good for you.
Griffin’s do their bit in getting this positive and healthy message across to future generations by hosting an annual National Potato Day for children from local schools who get to see what it takes to get a potato from farm to fork and, day in, day out, are delivering a quality product.
Griffins Potatoes are also on social media, so keep up to date and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram! It’s very tasty!
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