Denise Hall: Markets add colour to the rural landscape

Q&A: Colm O’Regan
Horizon Farm keeps the focus on supporting local growers and businesses

They have become an increasingly familiar feature of many Irish towns, vibrant farmers markets offering colour, variety, a lively atmosphere and the opportunity for small producers to sell surplus produce, home made jams, crafts and much more.

For rural communities, farmers markets help to maintain important social ties and bring attention to the surrounding areas and on-going activities. And they are often a vital start-up opportunity for a variety of small businesses.

One such couple are Colm and Liz O’Regan of Horizon Farm in Kinsale. But more from them later.

By providing outlets for local products farmers markets help to create the kind of distinction and uniqueness that persuades visitors to return. Reduced transport, storage and refrigeration can benefit communities too.

Researchers determined that 90% of money raised at farmers markets stays in the community. And this money stays there longer than money that supports larger corporations. So it’s a win-win situation.

For consumers, farmers markets mean reduced overheads in driving and parking, fresher and seasonal healthier foods and a better variety, especially of the more exotic kind. Farmers markets exist worldwide and vividly reflect their local culture and economy.

Failte Ireland identified food tourism — once known as “gourmet tourism”as a growing market.

“Ireland is recognised by visitors for the availability, quality and value of our local and regional food experiences which evoke a unique sense of place, culture and hospitality” a spokesperson said.

Speciality foods account for €500m per year from a base of 300 producers, so it’s a considerable market. But what exactly is artisan food? Something that is unique, often hand made with a distinctive taste and flavour and with a style all its own.

Ian McKenna describes this process as a test of the 4P’s “ a synthesis of the Personality of the producer, the Place it came from, the Product itself and Passion in the manner it is produced.” And anybody who has ambled round their local market has no doubt seen that the goods on offer are frequently proudly displayed by stallholders who obviously take a great pride in their product.

A trip to Bantry Market on a Friday is an illuminating experience at any time of the year, particularly in the summer when the stalls are overflowing with plump vegetables, plants, trees and shrubs of all descriptions and the tantalizing scents of made- on-the-spot pizzas, burgers and the wok stand, all wafted on the breeze blowing in off Bantry Bay.

There’s often music too, traditional and contemporary and the chance to meet up with friends and neighbours and enjoy catching up on some news over a cup of good coffee.

The times they are a- changing in Ireland’s market places. I can remember not so many years ago when the market was a more perfunctory affair — spuds, cabbage, carrots, that sort of thing. (I asked a stall holder if he had any spinach. He thought deeply for a few moments, then shook his head and said “No, that’s a bit exotic for these parts.”)

But recently, I came across Colm and Liz’s mixed leaves nd was smitten by their taste and liked the couple’s personal message on the packet.

Of course, all this creative drive to sell, face to face, the produce of your own hands, needs a bit of organising. These days, most markets have regulations and there are many practicalities too.

Food Academy Start was formed by An Bord Bia to start and nurture food businesses, a standardized programme of supports throughout the country. The concept is based around a series of workshops that are run by County Enterprise Boards.

Partnered by Supervalu, retailers in each of the regions participating in a lively Dragon’s Den-style pitch process.

Colm O’Regan and Liz, his wife, as many people do, decided to grow to eat. Colm told me how instrumental the Food Academy programme had been to their progress.

You’re from a farming background?

Yes, reared on this farm at Ballyregan. I worked off the farm for years, went travelling and working in the technical services industry. I travelled extensively throughout South East Asia but eventually, I wanted to come back to Ireland.

I decided to grow a few vegetables on some land we have, mostly for ourselves, and that’s how it all started. I’ve always been interested in market gardening and before I knew it, we were growing and selling at the local Farmer’s Market. And people seemed to like what we were growing.”

The mixed leaves have become popular of late.

At first, we only grew the sort of crops we could cut with a knife but eventually we graduated and became more ambitious. Now the bags that are selling really well have mizuna, spinach, chard, mustard, rocket, poc choi and lettuce.

We’ve got a unique climate around Kinsale, driven by the Atlantic Ocean. It gives the produce an intense, special flavour.

That’s just about come to an end and now we’re into purple sprouting broccoli. But it was the Food Academy that really got us on our feet. We learned about everything,from growing to marketing and creating a presence in the market place.

So you went from growing a modest amount for yourselves and the Farmers Market to supplying SuperValu? That must have been a bit of a shock to the system.

Oh yes. We were suddenly very busy and thankful for the preparation we’d done with Food Academy. And we realised the importance of keeping the supply going. Now we have polytunnels and we’re on the go all the time.

I also think it’s important to support the rural economy by buying local from growers and businesses. If that money goes out of the country, it’s gone for good.

Do you have any livestock?

No we don’t. We pretty much have our hands full with what we are doing.But I don’t think I really choose this life. It chose me. And it’s nice when people say they enjoy our produce. It’s a very healthy life and one thing’s for sure, I sleep well at night.”


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