Wexford strawberries are known the length and breadth of Ireland, but timing and location can prove important factors in deciding where to grow and sell them. Here strawberry grower, Cyril Wheelock from Wheelock Fruits in Co. Wexford tells how has recently diversified his fruit farm into a farm shop, providing some insight into what is a relatively unique development within Ireland.
Story of us
I grew up just south-west of the town of Enniscorthy on a small mixed farm, where my parents were involved in livestock, poultry and soft fruit production. Along with growing strawberries for the jam processing market, my mother sold raspberries to Kelly’s Hotel in Rosslare. I can also recall my mother and father loading up two cars, one an Aston A40, to sell turkeys at the Christmas market in Dublin.In 1972, when I was fourteen years of age, my father was tragically killed in a tractor accident. It must have been a tremendous shock for my mother, with five children to rear on just forty acres of land. I was the youngest and a short time later, I left school to help out on the farm and to milk the cows. Of course, it had its advantages and disadvantages but ‘such is life’ as they say.
Then in my late teens, I started out in strawberries, planting a few drills at home in the corner of a field. However, this time I felt it best to focus on fresh fruit and set up local roadside stands along with selling into the Dublin market. At that stage, it was a safer route to market, rather than the jam processing sector which was under growing pressure. I felt it important not to tie myself down with the responsibility of having to manage acres of fruit with a large contingent of pickers.
In 1990, we bought eighteen acres of land at Finchogue, just a stone’s throw east of Enniscorthy town and set up our own fruit farm there. At that stage, Margaret and I had married, and the business very much evolved into a family affair. It was also the period when we transitioned from planting in-field drills to growing fruit in tunnels and under glass. This meant we were able to extend the growing season, harvesting fruit from May until October, which from a business perspective made a real difference. Wexford strawberries are quite literally a brand in themselves, and over time, we established five to six roadside stands in and around Enniscorthy, selling our strawberries under the Wheelock Strawberry brand. Margaret was employed as a civil servant and on Saturdays and other weekday evenings we worked together on the farm. Every Monday she headed back to work and I headed out to cattle farms across the South East, where for many years I offered hoof trimming services to my farmer customers. Margaret then decided to retire, enabling her to work full-time on the farm which further boosted the business.
Over the years, we talked about opening a farm shop to help diversify our fruit farm. It was a shared ambition and something we wanted to do. Part of the impetus to diversify was driven by the proposed M11 by-pass around Enniscorthy, which we felt could negatively impact our roadside sales. On the other hand, selling fruit directly from our farm shop would have the positive effect of freeing up the daily workload, in servicing our stands. In a way, the proposed M11 by-pass encouraged us to see if we could capitalise on the opportunity of bringing the business home, with the bonus of helping ameliorate any road safety concerns, we might have had.
We needed to carry out some market research and fortunately our UK-based farm advisor arranged for us to travel and meet with some farm shop owners over there. Farm shops appear everywhere in the UK and naturally due to population size, operate at a different scale. We were very warmly received and the advice and insight we gained proved invaluable and of course the ‘magic’ was for us would be to develop a model, at a scale that could work for us in Ireland.
This summer saw the opening of the M11 Enniscorthy by-pass. Serendipity has undoubtedly placed us in a fantastic location, with our farm shop now visible and adjacent to the motorway. In addition, we are just an hour commute from Dublin. Furthermore, we have so much history around us here, with Vinegar hill and the Father Murphy Centre close at hand. It’s also interesting to note and a bit of a co- incidence that the phonetic rendering of Vinegar Hill is ‘Cnoc Fiodh na gCaor’, which actually means ‘’Hill of the wood of the berries’. Since launching last December, we are certainly attracting the crowds and the business is running well-ahead of expectations. Of course, being busier than we had planned, meant increasing staffing levels in our restaurant, combined with extra overhead and cashflow requirements but it’s something we are not complaining about. We are also just into the first few months of this year’s season and our regular roadside customers are getting used to travelling here to buy our strawberries. That’s the trade we are hoping to build on and I believe it’s a model that’s working and will continue to grow.
We have lots of ideas and plans of how we are going to progress the business. At the moment, we offer ‘pick your own’ strawberries and have planted a ‘pumpkin patch’ on the farm for Halloween. From an educational perspective, these initiatives, can help provide young children with an insight and understanding of where some of their food comes from. We are also planning a big drive for Christmas where families can experience a unique Santa trail that we are in the process of developing.
Business and life lessons
Looking back and without even realising it until much later, I believe I was being trained and moulded by my mother and father and it’s probably what gave me the appetite to go work for myself. I’ve also been very lucky in my hoof trimming work. I have worked with farmers from all over the Southeast and they are fantastic. I have on-going contact and support with this huge network and if I need to find out anything from a business perspective, I can. This has proven to be invaluable in both my life and my work. Essentially, it means that if I had a problem and need advice, I know someone to ring.
At this stage in our lives, investing or diversifying the business wasn’t something we had to do. But I am not the kind of person to go sit back and tie up the boots. This project charges my batteries and has put ten years onto my life and provides an opportunity, where we can meet and talk with the people, which is something we both love to do.
Interview by Brendan Byrne