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Tart it up!




Roland Newenham, rhubarb grower, Carriagline

Roland Newenham, rhubarb grower, Carriagline

Inspired by one of my mother’s superb rhubarb tarts, this week I paid a visit to Roland Newenham at Coolmore Gardens in Carrigaline. Roland is one of Ireland biggest growers of rhubarb, in fact he’s nearly 6’5”! He also happens to have 34 acres of this wonderful dessert vegetable, which is the first tart filling to come into season and one which you can usually expect to have been grown in Ireland. Rhubarb has a long harvesting season, particularly in West Cork, where Roland has a month’s head start on other major growers near Dublin, his first crop arriving at the end of February. He can continue picking until the end of September/early October.


 


Once the plant crown is established, rhubarb is a low maintenance crop that fends off pests, weeds and disease without assistance. Each crown can produce for at least 10 years and so rhubarb is best planted at the end of the garden where it can be left alone. Roland tells me that his rhubarb is all but organic apart from the addition of some nitrogen each year. He covers the plants in straw in January, and this acts as a mulch preventing weed growth and adds nutrients to the soil. The straw covering also has a slight “forcing” effect, encouraging earlier growth. From the end of February, Roland’s team pick the fields in rotation, harvesting from each plant every 6-8 weeks, although he admits he has more planted than he needs “We could get away with 20 acres, but I let it rest longer, that way we’re not pulling the guts out of it”.


 


Roland sells most of his rhubarb to Musgraves via Fyffes (Total Produce) and supplies the whole country in March until the other growers come into crop. He finds the central distribution system very straightforward to work with and also sells leeks and Brussels sprouts in this way. His order comes in each day at 3pm by which time most of it has been picked during the day. He delivers the following morning to the distribution centre in Cork. The rhubarb and other vegetables are on the shop shelves the following day.


 


Daily picking to order like this has great advantages for freshness and wastage, and on the fine balmy day I chose to visit, it seemed a pleasant enough job, but Roland reminded me that his workers are out picking in all weather. And yet his team of 10 seem very content at their work. In fact, 2 of his staff have been with him since 1974 and most of the others since the mid 1980’s. Roland’s commitment to his staff seems his foremost concern. “We can’t pay top dollar but what I can offer is a stress free environment, there’s no-one out there pushing them.”


 


To get the bigger picture on commercial vegetable growing in Ireland I followed up my visit to Coolmore Gardens with a phonecall to the IFA press centre in Dublin where I spoke to PJ Jones, the IFA field vegetable co-ordinator. PJ presented a fairly bleak picture about the pressure that vegetable growers are under in dealing with the retail multiples – “Every week you hear of a new supermarket opening, more and more square footage of retail space, but the population isn’t increasing at that rate. There’s over capacity in food retailing and they are fighting it out with discounts. There’s a lot of talk about food inflation, and the supermarkets have recently accepted increases in the price of milk and wheat, but with vegetables they want to discount the hell out of it. It’s causing us serious problems, we can’t get a price increase and yet we’re hit with the same increases in our costs as other farmers.”


 


It would be easy to think that rhubarb has been a part of our food culture for ever, so incomplete seems the country garden without it. And yet rhubarb only arrived in the 1800s having travelled the Old Silk Road from Asia, where it is not widely eaten but used for its medicinal value. Let’s hope that our retailers behave responsibly and fairly in dealing with our growers or we may have to start trucking rhubarb down the Silk Road again. Of course that rhubarb will be more than 2 days old and not as easy to tart it up!

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