Ellie O’Byrne.


‘We just go out and pick what we need for dinner’

East Cork vegetable farmers Joe and Sandra Burns see eating seasonally and educating the next generation as the cornerstones of sustainability, so it’s all hands on deck as their children learn through doing, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

‘We just go out and pick what we need for dinner’

East Cork vegetable farmers Joe and Sandra Burns see eating seasonally and educating the next generation as the cornerstones of sustainability, so it’s all hands on deck as their children learn through doing, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Joe and Sandra Burns have a 36-acre vegetable farm at Ballycurraginny outside Killeagh in East Cork. Five years ago, they began producing gourmet crisps as a way of adding value to their produce. Joe’s Farm Crisps have since taken off and are available at retailers all over Ireland, as well as from their Farmer’s Market stalls in Co Cork.

The couple are passionate about education and run regular farm walks at their home, including two “Journey of Crisp” production tours as part of the upcoming Feast Cork Food & Drink Festival.

Joe and Sandra are parents to Conor, 13, Megan, 11 and Katelyn, who is just three months old.

Sandra: “We got married 15 years ago and started growing potatoes and veg 13 years ago. Joe’s mam and dad used to sell veg and we took over. In Christmas 2012, there was a price war among the supermarkets. They were selling veg for 5 cent.

“Our backs were against the wall; I was let go from my job and I was helping out at the markets, but that started going downhill as well with the price of veg. Out of necessity, we had to change our business pretty fast, and we had two young kids under the age of two.

“There was a lot of trial and error and we sold our first bag of crisps in March 2014, between equipment and trying different varieties of beetroot and carrot. It took a while to get it all right.

Now, Conor is starting secondary school and Megan is going into fifth class. Megan is big into outdoors and farming. Last year we grew pumpkins and opened the farm around Hallowe’en; we started off just doing it for schools but then demand grew so we opened it to families too.

"We planted an orchard this year, and Megan wanted to grow raspberries, so we planted those too.

“We want to do more farm tours and education. Last year, when we were showing kids around the farm, a lot of them didn’t know what vegetables they were looking at; you’d pull a leek out of the ground and they’d ask if it was a radish. We had fun, but it was also kind of scary because it makes you wonder what these kids are eating.

“All the veg and potatoes we eat come from the farm. Sometimes that makes it a bit tough, because depending on the season you might be down to frozen peas some of the time. I hate cooking in May and June because it’s really hard, but if the weather’s good you can quickly switch to salads. From now on is a lovely time of year because all our veg is coming intoseason.

“Our household waste is really low, because you just go out and pick what you need when you’re cooking. You don’t need to go out and buy a bag of carrots — you just pick what you want.

We have one car and Joe has the van and we have tractors too. We are car-dependent to get the kids to school and stuff. We’re three miles from Killeagh and there’s no Luas outside the door; you have to get around.

"For markets and delivering, you are out on the road a lot.

“The kids see all the work that goes on behind the scenes. Every day is different: you could be cooking or picking the veg, or delivering.

"It’s varied because we do the whole process start to finish. The kids have seen a good bit of the country for things like the Ploughing Championships and they help out with the picking or at the market stall.

Joe: “A lot of it is about educating the next generation about how to farm and about where their food comes from. The skill of growing will be lost because of the amount of growers dropping out; I think there’s only about five people in the country growing cauliflowers now; we’re going to end up totally reliant on imports.

“I think it’s a huge problem to cut all the rainforests in Brazil to ship food over here. Mercosur is going to finish the beef in Ireland; the government seems to want Ireland only dairy.

"The same thing happened with tillage; we used to have Erin Foods in Midleton and almost every farmer around here would grow a field of peas for them, and then they shut.

"After that, Irish sugar went and when the beet went, that nearly finished tillage in Ireland. I’d love to see the kids go into farming, but the way it’s going I don’t know.

The only thing looking probable to continue is dairy and we won’t be going into that.

"I wouldn’t be pushing Conor to go into farming unless he really loves it.

“When we all had petrol cars we were told to switch to diesel and now it’s all about switching to electric. I think it’s all a bit of a racket. We still need to make energy to charge the cars, but then there’s the infrastructure, and making and disposing of the batteries, so I don’t know if that’s the answer really.

“When we put in bigger equipment for the crisps, we had to get three-phase power and we needed a diesel generator to do it, but we’re working with a company at the moment and we hope to convert over to using our used cooking oil to drive the generator.

"If we can get it right, we’ll power the whole farm on it, but we’re not quite there yet.”

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