Made in Munster: The tech giant Apple harvesting food from Fota Gardens

Made in Munster: The tech giant Apple harvesting food from Fota Gardens
Apple volunteers harvesting fruit at the Fota House & Gardens orchard

Volunteers from the multinational tech company harvest food fresh from Fota Gardens, writes Peter Dowdall.

In the 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries, the Big House was the centre of a particular type of hierarchy. It was the home of the landed gentry, aristocrats, landlords, and their ilk. The class system outside was strict, and was even more so within it.

The 21st-century western world doesn’t subscribe to the same social structure or classism, and nowadays a lot of these have been turned into hotels and open houses. Many of them are under the control of groups such as the National Trust in the UK and similar organisations such as the Irish Heritage Trust here in Ireland.

Fota in East Cork is one such estate and since the last private owner, Dorothy Bell, passed away, ownership of this vast estate has changed hands several times. It has been fragmented into different parcels and some extremely successful commercial entities such as Fota Wildlife Park, Fota Resort and Spa, and Fota Golf Club have all sprung up here since the 1980s.

But what of the Big House itself and the grounds around it? The arboretum here at Fota is world-renowned, but how does Fota House sustain itself in a modern-day pluralist and classless society?

Back then, the hierarchy determined who should speak with each other. The cook would speak to the head gardener, but any under-gardener who would deliver food produce to the kitchen would only be allowed to speak to a scullery maid.

The walkway from the walled garden to the scullery and kitchen in Fota is hidden by 4m-high walls, lest the owners of the house — or heaven forbid, any guest — may see a dirty gardener. Indeed, their stay at Fota could be ruined by such a sight!

Nowadays, it seems, all of our food comes from supermarkets and wholesalers, so what is the future for gardens like these which lay scattered throughout the country, many of which are falling or have fallen into states of complete disrepair and dereliction?

A unique relationship has developed between the Fota estate just outside Carrigtwohill and one of the worlds largest multi-national companies — and it all started with the bees. When Apple needed to expand its campus in Hollyhill several years ago, the bee-hives which were resident there had to be re-homed.

The first of the hives landed in Fota in 2016 and a conversation began between members of the Irish Heritage Trust, who own Fota, and the chefs in the Apple cafes.

Jon Kenny, head chef in Apple couldn’t but notice the amount of apples just waiting to be picked on the trees in what had been the kitchen garden at Fota. He heard next about the TV programme which yours truly presented along with Kitty Scully several years ago and which had been filmed in the same garden, and he wondered if could something be developed.

Fota agreed to some Apple volunteers coming to collect some apples and even as I say those words, the development of a symbiotic relationship seems inevitable.

Apple has funded the creation of roles for horticulturist Ian Graham and environmental scientist Miriam Kiskowa to oversee the redevelopment of the kitchen garden at Fota. Both Ian and Miriam have a deep knowledge and understanding of the way food grows and the two of them are assisted regularly by volunteers from the Apple Campus at Hollyhill and form the local community, Fota Volunteers.

Running a project like this brings challenges — not all of them horticultural. When you tend a garden as one or two, you get used to it, you get to know the space, become familiar with every sod, nook, and crook and you understand instinctively what, when and where something needs to be done. So, whilst the theory of big numbers of volunteers descending to assist sounds great, and indeed is, it does need to be carefully managed.

Larger tasks such as clearing an area, planting the polytunnels, and new fruit trees need to be set aside for when the numbers are there, while the more intricate and individual jobs can be attended to by one or two. Volunteers also get to harvest ripe produce in the garden, which will be prepared by the Apple chefs the following day. How many corporate employees can say that they picked their own dinner yesterday?

Of the many problems facing the world at the moment, perhaps the two most staggering and immediate are species extinction and climate chaos. We are witnessing the fastest rate of species extinction above the base rate the planet has witnessed in 55m years, and we can see all over the world, and increasingly here in Ireland, the effects of climate change.

When faced with statistics like this we may, as individuals, feel powerless to effect any change. However, if we all focus on just one part of the jigsaw, we can help to sustain and promote biodiversity. That one piece which we all need to help is: the bees.

Some 90% of the world’s food comes from 100 crops — 70% of these and 78% of wild plants are pollinated by bees. These wild plants in turn sustain birds and other wildlife, and thus we begin to understand the rich tapestry. Whatever we do to protect the bees results in helping to promote biodiversity in general.

Ian Graham, Orchard Project Lead Gardener
Ian Graham, Orchard Project Lead Gardener

It seems apt, therefore, that this project in Fota started with Apple’s need to re-house the bees and as a result of doing just that, other pieces of a new jigsaw have begun to fall into place. The old kitchen garden at Fota is coming back to life once more, the bigger picture is becoming visible.

About 40 of the original fruit trees still exist in the garden and have been carefully restored over the last few years. Much more heritage and modern varieties have been added since, and with the invaluable asset that is the Frameyard at Fota, Ian and the team have propagation and growing facilities for new seedlings and of course to start off seeds of all the annual crops.

As a gardener, it is truly exciting, even wondrous, to watch a garden like this get its soul back. It seemed so tragic to watch it idling in neglect for so many years. Ian’s enthusiasm is infectious as he talks about the crops and plants that he has grown and intends to grow for Apple employees.

Komatsuna, mizuna, mibuna, gai choy, along with specialist varieties of aubergine, cucumber, basil, and many, unknown to me before now, Asian salad leaves have made their way on to the lunch plates of Apple staff. There are about 100 different nationalities represented in the Apple workforce and for many of them, they are beginning to see ingredients popping up in their meals that they may not have seen since leaving home.

This, along with the volunteering of Apple Cork employees in the garden gives them a greater sense of belonging and not just in their workplace but in Cork and the wider community in general.

The garden in Fota is more than just part of a supply chain to the Apple kitchen, for we all know of the great mental and physical health benefits that come from working in a garden. Many of the employees are apartment-dwellers and to have access to a garden such as this, and to influence what is grown and thus ends up in their meals, is an intangible benefit to their overall health, both physical and mental.

It may be 100 years or so since the head gardener spoke regularly to the cook at Fota House, but now the same conversations are happening once more. It’s just that this time around the gardener, Ian Graham, is discussing the menu with Jon Kenny, head chef in the cafes of one of the corporate world’s biggest entities.

Everything else is just as it’s been for millennia — just leave it to the bees.

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