Progressive farmer focus: Managing over 2,000ac in Co. Meath

‘Progressive farmer focus’ is a new series of articles, in partnership with AIB, profiling progressive farmers around Ireland and how they are planning for the future.

The Irish tillage industry appears to be approaching a crossroads; three years of poor prices have many farmers questioning their future. However Ivan Curran, from Broadleas, Stamullen, Co. Meath, remains very much committed to the sector.

Currently farming over 2,000ac, Curran always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the family’s 330ac farm. As a child, the Broadleas-based holding was home to potato, tillage and dairy enterprises.

Over the years, the decision was made to move away from milking cows and to instead focus on potato and cereal production.

Following this decision, the acreage farmed by Curran, and his wife Frances, increased substantially. As it stands, Curran is currently farming 1,200-1,300ac of tillage, 650ac of potatoes and 110ac of grassland. The latter supports a beef enterprise of approximately 250 head of cattle.

AgriLand recently visited Ivan Curran’s operation to find out how he manages such a large acreage and why contracts are necessary when it comes to growing potatoes.

Selling 650ac of potatoes

Curran explained: “My biggest contract is with Largo Foods, which was originally Tayto. My father had been growing potatoes since the 1970s. He got a contract from Tayto then, so we have been growing for Tayto ever since.

I have a 5,500t contract with Largo Foods; a 1,000t contract with Tayto Northern Ireland; and a contract with Dennigans, which supplies Dunnes Stores with ware potatoes for the supermarket shelves.

Given the considerable acreage allocated to potatoes – and the high-yielding nature of the crop – Curran has had to invest in ‘bricks and mortar’ to store the crop once harvested.

On this, he said: “We have 2,000t of bulk storage, 1,000t of ambient storage and another 1,000t of refrigerated storage for Tayto.

“We have 3,000t of box storage for crisping and about 2,500t of storage for the ware potato market. We also supply over 2,000t directly from the field for crisping between July and September.”

The importance of contracts

Curran’s stance on contracts is simple, adding: “Year-on-year, the contracts are far more stable. I couldn’t or wouldn’t run a potato business without contracts. Currently, about 80% of my potatoes are contracted.

The finances in potatoes are massive; the investment in machinery is through the roof and there’s a big investment required for potatoes. You need to have a continuity of price and supply before you start off or you couldn’t be at it.

Bringing new ground into the system

In an ideal rotation, Curran said, potatoes can only be planted in the one field once every five years. To facilitate this, he needs to be constantly bringing new land into the system.

“I have a lot of land leased; about 60% of my land is leased on long-term leases – five-to-10 years – and the rest is under an 11-month system.”

In addition to the potato ground, Curran also runs a massive tillage enterprise of 1,200-1,300ac. Crops grown include: rape; winter wheat; and winter barley.

I am growing about 700ac of winter wheat, about 300ac of rape and about 300ac of winter barley.”

Some of the grains produced are dried on farm, while only a small proportion are stored on farm to feed the beef cattle. All of the remaining cereal and rape is sold to local merchants.

“We can store grain short-term in the yard, but with the potatoes we are too busy to store grain on site, so we don’t store much grain on site.”

Key to Curran’s success is his relationship with the bank. Given the large-scale investment required, it’s necessary that the bank knows his thoughts and plans.

On this note, he said: “Like any other business, when you’re looking for money, it has to work out on paper.

“I, and my father before me, have always banked with AIB. We have never had any problems with any of the projects we undertook. The bank backs us and has always been very good to us.”

Employing staff

Given the sheer scale of the operation, it would be impossible for Curran to run the enterprise single-handed. His wife Frances is heavily involved in the business and looks after all of the office work and the accounts.

This leaves Curran free to oversee the operation, which employs six full-time staff. During busier periods, this number increases significantly.

“When harvesting and planting is on, that could go up to 14,” Curran explained. Furthermore, additional labour units are required once the potato harvest begins.

“I could have 20 staff between the fields and the grading shed when we are digging. This process takes about seven-to-eight weeks to complete and to fill the stores.”

Away from the farm

Despite the significant scale of the enterprise, Curran admits that he is not tied to the farm. Away from the farm, he is involved in the local GAA club – St. Pat’s.

Motorbike racing is another of his pastimes. On this, he said: “During the summer, I would go to a lot of racing in the Isle of Man and I’d go to a lot of football matches; I’m not totally locked up on the farm.

“Sports would be a big part of my life and it would have been a big part of my father’s life as well. He won an All-Ireland with Mayo years ago; not many men can say that,” he concluded.