While Elmgrove Farm is a mixed farm enterprise, it’s core focus is growing flowers.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“My grandad grew gladiola back in the 1960s or 1970s, probably because he was so innovative and always looking for new ways to earn a living from the farm,” says Darragh.
Elmgrove Farm, by virtue of its location less than 40km from Dublin city centre, and 1km of the Meath coast, also is a type of farm that lends itself to diversification and innovation. “We’re lucky to have light, fertile soils to work with, which allow us to plant crops early in the year when it might be impossible in a lot of the rest of the country,” Darragh explains.
But the farm’s proximity to a large urban market has also ensured that the McCulloughs were always looking at what people wanted to buy as opposed to simply what the farm could produce.
“It’s always a delicate balance,” says Darragh. “We first got into growing daffodils because it fitted nicely with the other horticultural enterprise that my dad, Eamon, had built up on the farm. He was actually Ireland’s biggest onion grower for many years, which meant that he had all the kit for planting, harvesting and drying bulbs. So he was interested in daffodils more so for their bulbs than their flowers, and the possibility that they held out as a bolt-on to his onion enterprise.”
When Darragh took on the reins of managing the business in the mid 2000s, he had a niggling feeling that the farm was not capturing the full potential of the daffodils by letting the blooms die off in the fields every spring. “My dad had tried picking them, but it was a lot of hassle with gang-masters and migrant labour and a really poor price for the product,” he explains. “So we had pretty much given up on them when one of the lads that was working with the cows asked if he could pick a few flowers and sell them at the farm gate to help him pay for his wedding. “I must admit to being slightly mortified that it took the entrepreneurial nous of one of the employees for me to realise that there was an opportunity literally outside our front-door all along!” So what started as a springtime ‘ginger-beer stall’ as Darragh calls it, is now a thriving flower business selling flowers all over Ireland and Europe.
“None of this stuff happens overnight, but when I realised that we could sell our daffodils profitably, I started to invest in accommodation for staff and worked really hard to build a profitable daffodil business that now supplies wholesalers throughout Ireland and abroad,” he says. “I also realised that in order to make the business more sustainable in terms of the employment opportunities that it could offer, we needed to develop flower lines that would keep us busy for the months after the last daffodil is picked in April.
“In some ways it was another no-brainer in that we had all the key elements already in place: suitable land and machinery to grow the crops; staff that were experienced in handling fresh produce; facilities such as fridges and packhouses to ensure a top quality product; and routes to market through our existing relationships with wholesale buyers,” he says. The first additions were Sweet William, Sunflower, Gladiola, Peony and LA lily crops all planted outdoors.
“Despite our years of experience growing daffodils, we still had a steep learning curve with these new crops,” admits Darragh. “There is a good reason why there isn’t acres and acres of flowers grown in this country. High value flowers like lily just can’t handle the amount of rain we get in Ireland – and that’s coming from someone growing in one of the lowest rainfall regions of Ireland!
“So we’ve adapted our approach over the years. Now we’ve close to 1,000m2 under tunnels where we grow the more fragile flowers like Dahlia, Sweet Pea, and Oriental Lily. “Outdoors, we’ve learned some of the tricks of the trade like using fleeces, and trickle irrigation and mulches to help us get the crops over the line.”
Another major advantage for Elmgrove is the ability to connect directly with their customers through their online webshop, farm shop and stalls at farmers markets in Bluebell and Sandyford in Dublin. “In some ways, selling direct to the public is a double-edged sword. You need to know your game inside out, you need to have the resources to operate retail as well as all the usual growing and harvesting that takes place on a farm and, crucially, you need to have something to offer year-round so that you are a reliable source for the consumer looking to buy flowers,” observes Darragh.
That last element -creating 365 days supply of Irish product- is perhaps the biggest challenge but one that Elmgrove Farm is leading the way on. “Being able to offer Irish flowers and foliage on a year-round basis is the first big step to creating a sustainable supply of fresh flowers,” Darragh claims. “Anybody can produce flowers in July and August when they are pouring out of every garden and window-box, but show me top quality Irish produce in November, December and January, and you’ve got my attention!” he laughs.
Elmgrove, through the careful cultivation of over 20 varieties of daffodils planted across 75 acres (yes, that’s an awful lot of daffodils!), has a guaranteed supply of these harbingers of spring from the first week of January every year. These are paired with hydroponically grown tulips from Rush Bulb and Flower growers in Co Dublin to create our famous Springtime Charity bouquet that has raised thousands for the Irish Cancer Society.
In April, Allium, Camassia, Iris, Alstromeria and Calla start pouring out of the tunnels, and again Elmgrove sources the best of Irish from growers such as Fitzgerald Nurseries on the Limerick Clare border.“By May, we’re starting to crop our Sweet William, and getting excited about peony roses which people go bananas for!” chuckles Darragh. “The only problem with them is that they are over so fast!”
By the time the peony are finished, the farm’s focus switches to the first of the lily and sunflowers. Gladiola and every other flower line aren’t far behind, so that by mid summer a riot of colour graces the farm gate and market stalls. “Flowers have a remarkable ability to keep blooming into October if you are giving them enough TLC,” says Darragh. “It’s when November comes knocking that we need to start really thinking outside the box.”
Luckily, Elmgrove Farm has access to Irish lilies and tulips from heated glass, along with other winter wonders such as Ornamental Brassica, paperwhite narcissi, and overwintered Sweet William.
“We’ve also discovered the wonderful variety that Irish foliage can offer in terms of colour, structure, scent and texture,” notes Darragh. “Twisted willow, rose-hips, symphoricarpus, flax, hypericum, crab-apples, rosemary and eucalyptus are just some of the foliage being researched and cultivated at Elmgrove Farm.
Part of the challenge is deciding where to stop. We’re also trialling fragrant roses, echinops, eryngium and a never-ending list of new species that offer something else to the mix here. It’s easier said than done – thankfully we’re into it!”