When Sue McMillan announced in July that she was closing her farm shop near Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, there was a sudden rush of orders so she gave the business an eight-week reprieve, pleased with this evidence of continued demand for organic foods.
“I always say use us or lose us,” said the businesswoman who moved from the UK to the west of Ireland in 2004. She will decide in the coming weeks whether she can keep Ballagh Farm Shop open, at least until Christmas.
‘We’re still wavering,’ pointed out McMillan who started selling his homemade vegetables ‘over the garden wall’ at the start of the 2020 lockdown, before opening the shop, a ’12ft by 6ft shelter’ in his garden in August.
Earlier this year ‘attendance plummeted’ as people began to worry about the state of their finances
It is quickly inundated with customers, delighted with its range of organic products complemented by cheeses, charcuterie, homemade pastries and jams from other local artisan producers. But earlier this year “attendance plummeted” as people began to worry about the state of their finances.
“Easter was good. We came in at the end of April/May and we were like, ‘Where have they all gone? We’ve always had 10-14 strong people coming in week after week, but everyone has disappeared.
Like many craft producers, McMillan attributes this drastic change in buying habits to the cost of living crisis, meaning many people can no longer afford to pay for the peace of mind that buying organic products brings to those who worry about where their food is. just.
“People didn’t have the money and the pressure was coming – and that pressure continued,” she said.
McMillan also credits his customers’ shift from farm shop to supermarkets to a change in routine as people return to workplaces and their pre-Covid 19 diets.
‘My God, it’s expensive’
“People were back to their old norm. And also people were telling us, ‘My God, it’s expensive,’” said the market gardener, who recognizes that price increases affect everyone, especially organic producers like her.
Just over a month ago, Bríd Tiernan from Aughrim, Co Roscommon, abandoned her stalls at Boyle and Roscommon Farmers’ Markets after 17 years of selling organic eggs at both locations.
Bríd and her husband Pádraig, who run the organic farm in Pollnamaughill where they also raise sheep and cattle, will continue to frequent the weekly market in Carrick-on-Shannon for the time being. But a massive rise in the price of organic feed for their hens has forced them to reassess the viability of their egg business. This and the increased price of egg cartons, tags and fuel meant that they could no longer sell their eggs at a price that many people could afford.
“The lockdown was actually really good for business because people felt safer shopping outdoors,” said Bríd, who said click-and-collect was also good for those who wanted a minimal contact with others at the start of Covid-19.
But recent price hikes have caused his customers to tighten their purse strings, and when the feed bill for his hens rose to €1,025 a month from €600 four years ago, Bríd gave up on reluctantly two of his usual three farmers markets.
The size of his flock has increased from 280 hens last year to about 130 currently.
When the Tiernans were forced to raise their price from €6 to €7 a dozen, some of their customers admitted that they would be buying their eggs from the local supermarket for the foreseeable future.
“People tell us they just can’t afford it and there’s no question that they’re genuine,” Bríd said. But given her own increased costs, she said they had no choice but to raise the price. “Otherwise we would have been fools, busy fools,” she said.
After 17 years doing business in the Boyle Farmer’s Market where she forged close friendships with other merchants and with customers, it was a huge key to give it up. “It’s really raw,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. It was every Saturday of my life for 17 years. And you feel like you let people down too.
But the reality was that fewer people were now going to farmers’ markets due to the cost of diesel and rising prices, she said.
Fynn Hopper has been a long time devotee of the Carrick-on-Shannon market and, as an organic farmer himself, finds it hard to contemplate buying bread and cheese from the supermarket. But as the cost of living crisis rages, he may soon have no choice.
Two years ago, Fynn and his wife Holly moved with their three children, Kimball, Noomi and Iduna, from Hull city center in England to the top of Kilronan mountain overlooking the Arigna Valley in Co Roscommon.
Lured by the idea of reducing their carbon footprint, they embraced a more self-sufficient lifestyle and early on, Fynn, a former mental health nurse, milked goats and sold milk and eggs on the farm, while Holly was starting a weaving business out of the spare bedroom.
The couple own an electric car and Holly’s main mode of transportation is a three-wheeled bicycle which she uses to transport the three children to the valley. But the electric car may soon have to go.
The Hoppers have recently extended their holding, Heathbank Farm, by renting an additional 50 acres of land near the village of Ballyfarnan, from where they produce organic pork, lamb and beef. But there have been some reality checks thanks to the price spike.
“I think we’re going to sell the electric car,” said Fynn, who, because he doesn’t have a tractor or quad, has invested in a Jeep that also serves as his workshop.
“I can’t really justify the electric car sitting there, not being used,” he said. “We could manage with the money and we can’t afford to keep both cars running.”
He has noticed that since the price of diesel has gone up, fewer people are going to the farm to buy milk from his goats and eggs from free-range hens.
“A few people have asked if we can deliver or sell to the local store because they can’t afford the trip now,” he explained.
“More people have asked if we can do individual cuts as they can’t afford to spend €140 all at once”
Since last year, Fynn has been producing 10kg boxes of organic lamb, beef or pork, which can be delivered nationwide by courier in biodegradable insulated boxes, but in recent months orders have slowed.
“More people have asked if we can do individual cuts because they can’t afford to spend €140 all at once,” he explained.
His clientele includes people who are very concerned about animal welfare, as well as people who want to eat organic and also locals who go out of their way to support a neighbor.
But he expects many of them will be forced, due to their deteriorating financial situation, to think twice about where they will shop in the coming months.
“Even for ourselves, we would go to the Carrick Farmer’s Market every week, to buy bread and cheese because we want to support local producers, but I think we may have to go to Lidl soon for some of these things. The way things are going, organic food will be a luxury,” he said.
Michael Fogarty, who recently took over Beechpark Eco Farm in Clonsilla, Dublin 15, says organic growers like him need to adapt and be realistic about the financial hardship customers are experiencing.
“Obviously I have to balance the books, but there’s no point in having crops that you can’t sell either.”
He says that by selling seasonal crops and avoiding imported products, some prices can be kept low.
“Many organic producers import from Holland and elsewhere. It defeats the purpose. My goal is to be seasonal. Why would you eat strawberries in December?
Michael says the prices of many organic foods are now “just off the charts. And I can understand why people wouldn’t buy it.
Michael is originally from Dundee in Scotland, who also runs a restaurant. He says cost of living pressures are hitting all types of businesses, not just the organic sector.
“We see it in the restaurant. People go out for a really special occasion. It’s no longer a weekly occurrence now, more like once every six weeks.
But while people suffer from “gas and electricity through the roof”, he says, they care about how their food is produced. “We tell them all we use is water and hard work – no chemicals at all.”
“If you can buy a bag of carrots for 49 cents in the supermarket and get a bunch of carrots from us for €2, where do you go? »
Sue McMillan believes people know the difference between organic food and what they buy in the supermarket.
“But if you can buy a bag of carrots for 49 cents in the supermarket and get a bunch of carrots from us for €2, where do you go? ” she says. “Now our carrots are a whole different beast, but at the end of the day people can only spend what they have.
Worried about winter
“Some people will mix it up and buy their carrots and potatoes from me and buy other things from the supermarket.”
Like many people, she worries about the coming winter.
“I’m very worried about the higher electricity loads and I’m worried about the cost of heating this winter and how it will affect everyone’s lives, including us,” she said.
“It’s going to be a pretty tough fall and winter, I think.”