People who regularly travel the roads of Ireland never have to be told the summer days have arrived.
That’s because the return of the roadside stalls selling fresh strawberries are a sure indication that spring has given way to a new season and brighter days.
National Strawberry Week, which ended yesterday, is an annual campaign to celebrate the sector which is currently reporting rising sales.
News that the taste buds of the Irish are being increasingly tickled by the juicy fruit, which was mentioned in ancient Roman literature because of its medicinal use, is seen as an encouraging boost.
Figures released by Bord Bia at the Bloom garden festival in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, earlier this month, revealed that retail strawberry sales have increased by almost 20% year on year, reaching a value of €74.3 million in the last 12 months.
Michal Slawski, development and marketing specialist, Bord Bia, said the growth in consumption is fantastic news for the industry, and a reward for the hard work, time and effort invested to help grow the category.
“Strawberries are an increasingly popular choice among consumers as a tasty, low calorie, convenient snack,” he said.
Gary McCarthy, Irish Soft Fruit Growers Association, said fresh fruit and vegetables are a vital part of a healthy diet.
“The cold start to the year means the strawberry crop is a little later, but slow grown and sweeter than ever. We expect the Irish crop this year to total 7,700 tonnes. The sector currently employs over 1,000 people,” he said.
According to other statistics published in 2015, the retail value of sales to consumers in the 35-44 year old category also increased by 14% in the previous year.
A growth in consumption by this group is also seen as important because people in that age bracket often tend to have young children, which sets the industry up well for the future.
Multiple retail outlets account for 50% of fresh strawberry sales in Ireland.
Roadside stalls and farmgate sales (35%) and greengrocers (15%) are the other sale outlets.
Irish strawberries are normally produced for the local/home market with producer groups successfully exporting product to Britain when supply exceeds demand on the domestic market.
Fresh market production is centred along the east coast with potential for development around large towns throughout the country. Production of processing strawberries is confined to the south east.
National Strawberry Week, organised by the Irish Soft Fruit Growers Association in conjunction with Bord Bia and the Irish Farmers Association is primarily a consumer information campaign.
It aims to encourage consumers to enjoy more strawberries in the summer season when Irish crops are at peak production.
IFA President Joe Healy has, meanwhile, urged consumers to support Irish fruit growers by buying Irish.
He has also called upon retailers to recognise the investment made by Irish strawberry and fruit growers, by ensuring fresh fruit is seen on their shelves as a premium quality product and not used as a loss leader in price wars.
“Although Irish strawberries are synonymous with Irish summer, growers have made sizable investments on their farms to extend the production season,” he said.
Mr Healy said the IFA is actively involved in the monitoring of proper labelling of fruit both on retail shelves and in roadside sales.
“Only by regular monitoring and reporting of issues to the Department of Agriculture can a resolution to non-identifiable produce be achieved,” Mr Healy said.
He also said that there is on-going concern, however, about the decline in the value of the crop as a result of pressure from retailers.
Consumer demand continues to increase for strawberries but growers are fearful for their futures due to the escalation of input costs. To remain competitive Irish growers will rely on support from Government and the wider supply chain, he said, urging consumers to check for country of origin when buying fruit.
It was the French who started to harvest strawberries over 700 years ago and ever since the fruit has remained popular worldwide.
Strawberries grown in Ireland were always regarded as high summer treats because the climate militated against their production in the outdoors during the rest of the year.
But that changed with huge investments by growers in developing modern glass houses and new technology, which has extended the season from April to November.
Agri Aware, the farming and agri-food educational body, in association with Bord Bia and the Irish Soft Fruit Growers Association, recently ran a national colouring competition open to all of the State’s 3,300 primary level schools.
It was won by Scoil Bhláitin Íosa, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan. Over one third of primary schools have now signed up to Agri Aware’s Incredible Edibles healthy eating initiative.
Students are growing their own strawberries as part of the initiative which also encourages them to eat more potatoes, fruit and vegetables and to learn about food origin and the importance of healthy eating to prevent obesity.
Agri Aware chairman, Richard Moeran, said learning how to grow a variety of healthy fruit and vegetables and understanding seasonality is a great life skill to give young people.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s first strawberry wine was launched at Bloom by husband and wife team, Brett Stephenson and Pamela Walsh.
They discovered fruit wines in the United States and set about making their own wine from wild Irish blackberries and elderberries, hand-picked in the meadows of Wicklow.
The couple opened Ireland’s first fruit winery, Wicklow Way Wines, in 2015, and sought expertise and guidance to develop their flagship strawberry wine under the brand name Móinéir after the Irish word for meadows.
Around 150 small hand-picked strawberries, gently pressed to yield their juices, carefully fermented over a number of weeks, and aged to a golden-red hue, go into each bottle of this artisan wine.
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