Roadside strawberry sales are back. They are sure signs of summer, especially this year when so much has been lost to the dreadful coronavirus.
Their return has brought joy to many people whose taste buds are again being tickled by the juicy fruit which was mentioned in ancient Roman literature because of its medicinal use.
Ireland’s strawberry industry has grown significantly from the days when it was largely field-based production.
Harvesting was then concentrated in the traditional June-July period and much of the crop was destined for low-value processing.
But that changed with huge investments by growers in developing modern glasshouses and new technology, which has prolonged the season from April to year-end.
Fresh Irish strawberries can now be found in supermarkets, small shops and farmers’ markets for most of the year. But it is the roadside sales that still heralds the arrival of summer and brighter sunny days.
Keelings, the family-owned Dublin fruit company with a history going back to 1926, is a good example of how growers have helped modernise the industry.
It built a new 50,508 square meters state of the art glasshouse on its farm in 2009, which enabled it to produce over 100 million strawberries for the Irish market and extend the season into December.
This was obvious at the Bloom flower and garden festival in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, last year when three-quarters of a tonne of strawberries were eaten in Bord Bia’s ‘7 a day’ Rainbow polytunnel and ‘Food Dudes Kids Zone.’ A growth in consumption by young adults is seen as being particularly important because people in that age bracket often tend to have children, which sets the industry up well for the future.
Bord Bia research in recent years revealed that multiple retailers accounted for 50% of fresh strawberry sales in Ireland. Roadside stalls and farmgate sales (35%) and greengrocers (15%) were the other sale outlets.
Dieticians consider strawberries a healthy snack option because they are low in calories and sugar, which makes them the ideal alternative snack for consumers of all ages. An 80g portion contains 80% of a person’s daily vitamin C requirement, according to the experts.
The ancient Romans were also clearly aware of the health benefits of strawberries. They used then as cures for fever, bad breath, gut, sore throats, depression, fainting and blood diseases and as substitutes for toothpaste because the juice helped to clean discoloured teeth.
Locally grown strawberries are now regularly promoted in Ireland as being versatile and naturally sweet, delicious to have with breakfast, as a healthy salad topping for lunch and picnics and as smoothies among busy people on the go.
Consumers, who are more than ever looking for fresh local produce in order to support their health and wellbeing, are now being urged by the industry to replace refined sugars with strawberries as a natural as a natural alternative with many nutritional benefits.
Irish Farmers Association president Tim Cullinan said the vital indigenous industry is worth €47 million at farm gate, with 57 growers producing over 8,000 tonnes annually.
“Over 1,000 people are now employed in the industry and the total retail market is valued at €91m. This exceeds €100m when roadside sales are included,” he said, urging consumers and retailers to support the sector.
Mr Cullinan said this season is one of the most difficult on record for growers. They have had to contend with the usual issues of rising input costs and lower margins, while the COVID-19 pandemic has led to serious issues with labour on farms.
Despite reduced traffic volumes, as a result of travel restrictions Irish Farmers Association Soft Fruit Chairman Jimmy Kearns from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, said roadside sales are good, although some primary routes are not as strong as quieter roads.
“Retail sales are good also. However, there has been no increase in the farm gate price to cover the extra costs associated with Covid-19,” he said.
Mr Kearns reminded consumers that Irish strawberry growers adhere to voluntary quality assurance schemes, with the highest standards of traceability, food hygiene, workers' rights and sustainability.
However, he said this compliance creates an increasing financial burden on primary producers, which must be recognised by retailers.
Due to Covid-19, the industry has also put measures including social distancing in place in ensure the safety of all their staff and customers.
Many strawberry growers have also hired more students this year to meet the labour shortage challenge. While this has helped in getting the fruit picked, it has led to increased costs due to loss of efficiencies.
As a result, labour and other extra costs associated with Covid-19 have raised production costs by an estimated 15% this season, according to the industry.
Dublin, Wexford, Meath, and Kildare are the main growing areas, but Ireland has a long association with the fruit. It was first grown here over 260 years ago on the Strawberry Beds beside the River Liffey in Dublin.
Consumers, household shoppers and retailers are now being urged by the IFA to support strawberries produced on Irish farms, especially during this difficult time.
These are in full supply and available through a wide range of outlets from small fruit and vegetable shops, to roadside stalls and large retail multiples.
Lorcan Bourke, Bord Bia Fresh Produce Manager, said recent research by Kantar Worldpanel shows that Irish households spend €120m per annum on fresh strawberries.
“In the past five years, both the volume and the value of strawberry sales have grown by 50%, showing the increase in popularity of this household favourite fruit.
“Thankfully, we have a strong supply of locally-grown strawberries available throughout Ireland,” he said.