Daffodils are the only cut flower that Ireland exports, making Darragh McCullough’s farm very unusual in a country dominated by beef and dairy production.
“I like to boast that my farm is the fifth largest daffodil farm in the country,” laughs McCullough. He knows this isn’t much of a boast since there are only five commercial daffodil growers in Ireland.
“Ireland is famous for being green, and that’s because it’s cool and wet,” explains McCullough. “Average rainfall in Ireland is about 1,200mm, and temperatures don’t vary much from 7-14°C from winter to summer. That’s ideal for growing grass but not great if you want to grow disease-free crops like outdoor flowers.”
The climate isn’t the only challenge. As Europe’s most westerly island, the soils are stony and often shallow and peaty.
But Elmgrove Farm, which three generations of McCulloughs have farmed, is located on Ireland’s east coast just 40 minutes north of Dublin city centre, which gives it several key advantages.
“The east coast gets less than half the amount of rainfall compared to the west coast, and every hectare we farm is easily ploughable,” says McCullough.
“It’s not as good as the sandy soils in the Netherlands or the stone-free soils I’ve seen in eastern Poland, but we can make it work.”
McCullough’s grandfather, Pat, first tried growing gladiola for a trader in a local town.
“But my dad says he never got paid, so he focused instead on dairying and cereals. My dad, Eamon, built up an onion enterprise to the point where he was the largest onion grower in Ireland.
“But again, with just 60ha, this wasn’t that big a boast compared to the international competition,” he said.
Clearly, international competition gradually made it difficult for Elmgrove Farm to stay profitable in onions.
“We were struggling to compete with the Dutch and Kiwi imports that had flawless skin quality,” claims McCullough.
However, the McCulloughs had a Plan B, and during the 1990s, they started looking at adding a daffodil enterprise because they already had so much of the bulb machinery and soil types required.
“Daffodils and onions are both bulb crops so that we could use practically all the same planting, harvesting, grading and drying equipment,” he says.
Initially, the crop was only being grown for the value of the daffodil bulbs.
“During the 1990s, bulb prices were relatively high, so on paper, it looked like we could make a profit on the bulbs alone. Before the free movement of labour around the EU, we didn’t have access to a labour pool to hand-pick the flowers. And to be honest, I don’t think my dad wanted the hassle of dealing with seasonal workers that often had no English, accommodation or loyalty to the business,” says McCullough.
However, when the business was under pressure to survive in 2005, Darragh decided to give daffodil flower picking a serious chance.
“It’s a bit embarrassing, really. One of the guys who worked on the farm milking cows tried picking some daffodils to pay for his wedding. Only when I saw how many people stopped at the farm gate to buy them did I realise there might be something to be made from flower picking.
“At the same time, Eastern Europeans from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, and Slovakia started to arrive in Ireland looking for work. We installed a few caravans on the farm to provide temporary accommodation, and I looked to see if there was any supermarket we could supply daffodils into.
“Lidl was the first supermarket we started with, and we still supply them today. I remember how stressed out we were trying to pack out eight pallets in one week. Now we pack out eight pallets a day!” grins McCullough.
The business has grown a lot since then, with nearly 40ha of daffodils and small areas of foliage and other cut flowers such as gladiola, sunflower and lily.
“The business has done a couple of U-turns over the years when you think about it. We got out of growing onions because we couldn’t cope with the international competition. Instead, we focused on building our daffodil business to supply Irish supermarkets and florists. But the business model has changed again; we now find that over 90 per cent of what we produce is exported to places like Holland and Poland.
“I’m proud of that. Our onion enterprise was vulnerable because we weren’t as good as the international competition. With daffodils, we are the international competition! Yes, there are risks involved with exporting, but I find that it’s a more reliable business model than relying on a handful of local customers.”
Daffodils are one of the most traditional cut flowers. And while there has been a massive shift of flower growing to lower-cost regions such as Africa and South America, Narcissus is one flower that doesn’t do so well outside of some of the most expensive growing areas in the world.
The daffodil thrives in a mild, damp climate typical of Britain and Ireland, Northwest USA, and New Zealand – all of which are well-developed economies with high-cost bases.
But Darragh McCullough maintains that the Silicon Valley of daffodil growing is in Cornwall in southwest England. “They can start picking daffodils about two weeks earlier than the rest of Europe, and for this reason, there are now growers with over 1,000 ha operations,” says McCullough.
While the UK accounts for 80 per cent of the global supply of daffodils, Cornwall accounts for 80 per cent of the UK’s total output, meaning that it accounts for an incredible two-thirds of the worldwide production.
But the Irish man is not overly worried about the scale of his neighbours’ operations. “Brexit has not helped their situation. The biggest challenge in producing daffodils is sourcing labour to pick them,” says McCullough.
“It is outdoor work for months when the temperatures can drop near freezing. If it’s not cold, it’s often wet, and the work is physically demanding. I haven’t been able to interest an Irish person in picking daffodils in many years – even during the worst part of the recession in 2010!
“So nearly all my flower pickers are Romanian workers, and without them, I wouldn’t have a business. “Thankfully, Ireland has no intention of ever leaving the EU because Brexit has restricted the labour supply in the UK, and many of the growers have struggled to get enough staff to pick all their crops for the last few years.
“There is a big push in the UK to develop more automation to remove the requirement for so much manual labour, but I still think it will be years, if not decades, before we see a machine that is commercially available for daffodil picking. We’ll jump that hurdle when we get to it,” he says.
Elmgrove Farm had a lucky escape during the flower price crash that hit the industry at the start of Covid in 2020. “We had just sent our last shipment of flowers when the lockdown kicked in across Europe. I was very nervous about it because I could see the news that flowers worth millions of euros were being dumped from the Dutch auctions every day,” says Darragh.
“But our flowers made it into the supermarkets in Poland with no problem and sold very fast because everybody had no choice but to do all their purchasing through the big supermarket chains.
“Coming into 2021, I was nervous again about staff, logistics and lockdowns, but a general shortage of flowers, combined with substantial supermarket sales volumes, helped keep the price at record highs.
“While the dynamic was slightly different in 2022, prices have stayed as high as before, and the market looks solid for 2023.
“Buyers are contacting me 12 months before the harvest commences, and that’s a sign that product is scarce, and buyers are worried about locking in supply. So, now, it’s still a sellers’ market.
“I guess other factors now are more critical than Covid or Brexit. The invasion of Ukraine has created a cost spike in core inputs such as fertiliser, sprays, electricity, and diesel. This, combined with a general wage hike, interest rates, machinery, buildings, and regulatory obligations, has pushed up the price of all fresh produce commodities.
“I don’t see any cost reduction coming before the war ends, and it looks like it could still be a year or two away.
“By then, there will have been such a significant shift to renewable energy that much of the cost increases will be hard-baked into the prices.
“It’s impossible to predict, so all I can do as a grower is focus on the costs I know for the next 12 months and price accordingly.
“And now I understand that ancient Chinese curse – ‘May you live in interesting times!’”
The farm enterprise at Elmgrove has always diversified, with cows being milked and crops produced by the McCullough family since the 1940s.
“We have always tried to get ahead in farming by targeting a premium or niche market. My grandad built up a pedigree Friesian dairy herd, with the milk getting a premium because it had a lower bacterial load than most of the Irish milk production in the 1940s and 1950s,” says Darragh McCullough.
“The stock sold at a premium because of their pedigree status. Then my dad developed an onion-growing business because of a market gap in the 1970s.
“Flower production is another niche business in Ireland, and I have tried to diversify even within flowers to ensure that we are not dependent on just daffodils for our income.
“I also wanted to create longer-term employment opportunities for the staff that came back to the farm every season to pick daffodils. So, we started growing lilies, sunflowers, gladiola, sweet William and peony roses outdoors.
“We have found that the lily needs to be grown under protection to reduce the botrytis pressure on the crop. So, we built 1,000m² cold tunnels.
“We cannot compete on export markets with these other flower lines, but we can compete with imports in Ireland. Our flowers have the advantage of having a good story behind them for local customers. They like the idea that they are ‘buying local’ and that the product has not been trucked, shipped, or flown around the world.
“I know there is a contradiction here, given that a big part of our business is based on exporting our daffodils to the rest of Europe, but I guess that’s life. There’s a market for everything to some extent.”
Elmgrove Farm also sells nearly 200 tonnes of daffodil bulbs annually, mainly to Irish supermarkets and Dutch wholesalers.
“We make more money from our flowers, so we leave the bulbs in the ground for two, three or four years at a time,” explains Darragh McCullough.
“We don’t pick the flowers in the first year because they tend to be shorter in length and sub-premium.
“So, we pick as much as possible from the crop in the following years. But it is essential to lift the bulbs after about four years because there is an increasing risk of disease getting into the crop and the bulbs running out of space to multiply and expand in the ground.
“The vast majority of our varieties are yellow flowers because these have the best vase life. It is a pity because there are hundreds of beautiful varieties with fragrances, multi-heads, and rosette-type heads that the public doesn’t usually get the option of buying.
“We still grow several non-yellow varieties like ‘Sir Winston Churchill’, ‘Ice Follies’, ‘Apotheose’, and ‘Martinette’ for our bulb contracts and local flower sales.
“The yellow varieties are many of the usual ones such as ‘Tamara’, ‘Malvern City’, ‘Carlton’, ‘California’, and ‘Standard Value’.
“We grow about 20 varieties to ensure a continuous harvest of flowers from January through April.”
Elmgrove Farm has a foothold in its farm’s online world of flower sales and a physical retail site.
“We started selling bunches of daffodils from the farm gate at the weekends 20 years ago. Gradually, our range and customer base have built up to the point where we are now open seven days a week, all year round.
“But when Covid hit, we also decided to set up a website called www.elmgrovefarm.ie to allow the Irish consumer to order flowers directly from us. These are delivered nationwide via courier.
“This had a fantastic first year when Covid lockdowns were most severe, but it has eased back a lot now.
“But it is an interesting additional channel for us to sell our product, and I think it will develop more in the future,” he says. And contrary to what some might have predicted, the online shop has helped drive sales from the original shop at the farm. “I know many independent retail stores are closing due to shifting consumer spending online.
“But we have found that more people know about us from our presence online, both through the website and on social media through Facebook and Instagram. They are quite complementary,” claims McCullough.
And despite the talk of a recession in the months ahead, Darragh McCullough plans to build a €200,000 shop on his farm over the coming months.
“We have outgrown the temporary set-up we had at our farm gate to the point where sometimes it’s so busy that it’s not that safe for people to stop.
“So, we must do something. It’s another gamble, but every day in farming is a gamble!”