At the brow of the hill, there is a T junction. No signpost, but instinct tells me to go left. A man standing at a funeral outside Ovens church confirms I’m on the right road.
I drive into an empty farmyard at Mealagulla Orchards, Knockane. The yard is full of old cattle sheds with curved, corrugated steel roofs, beautifully kept and built around the farmhouse.
It looks like the right place, and I call James Scannell, the farmer, on the phone. “Can you see the orchard?” he asks, “Walk in and I’ll start the tractor, so you’ll know where we are.” In the orchard, James is leaning against the tractor.
One of his children, Matthew, is picking apples, early ones for the market. This is not an ordinary orchard, at least not one as I’d imagined. James’s trees are laid out in long rows, running parallel across a field of about four acres. They are close to 6ft in height, planted about 1m apart and the rows are at 3m intervals. The first few lines are of pear but the rest are laden down with red apples. Every apple tree also needs a pollinator of another variety, one that flowers at the same time. The varieties grown at Mealagulla are discovery and red elstar.
Hives are dotted around the orchard, as bees are vital for pollination. There are 24 hives here, supplying honey to the keeper, and onsite pollination for James.
The Scannells have farmed in this part of Cork for eight generations, and James inherited the land in 1996. By early 2007, the figures from dairy farming didn’t add up. He had a herd of 35 cows, but was working off the farm. Towards the end of the year, James sold the cattle.
The alternative was to increase the herd and invest in the yard. Under regulations, he would have had to build more cow accommodation, a larger milking parlour, and extra slurry storage. Some of the land was rented, and the rest put into allotments. It’s not that long ago, but allotments were just becoming trendy at the time, a trend that has now passed.
They brought in money, but in the spring of 2008, James noticed an ad in the Irish Examiner farming section which changed his farm completely. The ad in the paper was from Bulmers, the cider maker, looking for apple growers ready for immediate planting. James answered the ad; Bulmers was there within a week, and his land was approved on the spot. He points across the farm to a much larger orchard covering about 18 acres. This is the one he now grows under the contract from the cider maker.
“On Saturday, April 19, they began planting, and they had 18,000 trees in the ground by Monday evening.”
The varieties grown for Bulmers are golden delicious, grenadier, and bramley. The trees had been ordered two years in advance from a nursery in Belgium. That autumn, the Scannells got a crop of four tons off the 18 acres.
The crop size has steadily grown, to where he now hopes to get 20 tonnes per acre this season. Though the contract is for supply of apples to Bulmers, all the expense involved in growing lies with James. Once he delivers the crop to Clonmel, he is paid at the contract price.
The venture makes financial sense; the seven-days-a-week farming is gone, he’s not as tied to the land as before. Last year he invested in an apple harvester that means he can now harvest the 18 acres himself, keeping costs down further. The success of the larger orchard convinced James to plant a smaller one in the four-acre field where we are now standing.
“When we saw the figures for what could be got from a small area, it all made sense.”
In the smaller orchard, he grows for the farmers’ markets. Harvesting is done by hand, as bruising has to be avoided, and it can take six hours to handpick a tonne of apples. The picking can be even slower if the birds have been at the apples — and there are a lot of crows in the area.
“We only pick when the pip is brown,” says James. “You have to handle them like eggs, shape, size and colour are all vital for the market.”
The mown grass is very good feed for the trees, especially so after James sowed clover to enrich the soil. Now he can cut the grass straight onto the roots as a ready-made fertiliser.
In 2012, James planted the pear trees, conference for eating, and bosc for cooking. Pears are different from apples, in that they aren’t ready for cropping until late October, early November. Even then, they need a week in cold storage to soften them.
“No way will a pear soften on the branch,” says James, “but they’re great for the markets at Christmas.”
By James’ reckoning, there are now only three large growers in Cork, and fewer than 60 left in the Republic. Once you cross the border, there are nearly 200 growers in Armagh alone. Some smaller organic growers are supplying the growth in the cider trade, but only a few. Most of the craft cider producers have grown out of orchards already long in existence, as a means of making use of the crop.
The farmers’ markets have been a great boon for Mealagulla. For growers like James, having such a ready outlet for his product is vital, providing a steady cash flow. His first market was in Clonakilty, and he has fond memories of that trip. A crate of apples was loaded onto a trailer and hitched to his jeep. At the market, though, he hadn’t any way of getting the crate off. “People couldn’t even look in the box, but I still came home with an empty trailer,” laughs James, “Clonakilty has been very good to me since.”
Along with Clonakilty, he has a stall at the Wilton, Douglas, and the Coal Quay markets. With this year’s crop, he’ll have a new stall at Mahon Point. The eaters and a freshly pressed apple juice are the big sellers.
It is reassuring for the consumer to know that producers are routinely inspected, and it has become part of James’s working life.
Standards are high, and he is continually visited by the Department of Agriculture and Bord Bia. Those visits are outside of the three separate sections of the HSE that regularly call to his yard. Apple growing isn’t labour intensive, and James does the majority of the work. Insect damage isn’t as big a problem for Irish orchards as on the Continent. Here we have the problems of leaf spot mould and canker, but regular maintenance spraying keeps control. Pruning is done annually by hand and by machine.
Rabbits do the most damage, and there has been a boom in the rabbit population recently. Plastic guards are tied around the tree trunks in an effort to stop them nibbling at the bark. If a rabbit has a good chew, the tree will die, adding an unnecessary cost to production. Though we are only ten miles from the city, and three from the busy N7, the orchard is very peaceful. The only sounds are the humming of the bees and of James’s children playing among the trees. Back in his yard, he shows me the new harvester before taking the kids off for lunch.
They wave me off from the grassy bank at the entrance, with Diesel the dog standing guard. The change to apple growing has made a big difference to James Scannell. Gone are the seven days a week of farming work, and being tied to the dairy herd. James admits that if he hadn’t made the switch, he’d be working off-farm today, with his land rented in full.
That alternative didn’t appeal to someone who is the eighth generation to farm this part of the county. With the success of the apples, it looks like the tradition is in safe hands.