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Farm turned into thriving success by Co Londonderry family who know their onions

This week we look at how a brilliant idea turned a humble vegetable into a supermarket hit for a Limavady business

By Rachel Martin

Published 05/04/2016

Gerald Miller in one of his fields of onions. The Miller family has been farming land in the Roe Valley for several generations and today, they are the largest producer of onions in Northern Ireland
Gerald Miller in one of his fields of onions. The Miller family has been farming land in the Roe Valley for several generations and today, they are the largest producer of onions in Northern Ireland
The Miller family has been farming land in the Roe Valley for several generations and today, they are the largest producer of onions in Northern Ireland

Co Londonderry man Gerald Miller's family has been farming in Limavady for as long as he can remember but a venture by the younger generation proves they really do know their onions.

The Miller family began growing onions 30 years ago and are now known as the "onion people" as the province's only commercial grower of the vegetable.

Strict supermarket specification meant over-sized onions were left to sell for low prices, a problem the business had to cope with until three years ago when Gerald's sons William (30) and Ian (26) came up with the idea to find a way to add value to the left over onions.

William left a successful career as an engineer to come back to the family business, while Gerald's youngest son Ian suggested the family should start producing crispy onions.

Three years ago Gerald took the decision to invest around £250,000 installing processing facilities and since then the firm has struggled to keep up with orders.

Today, processed onions now account for between 12 and 13% of the company's sales.

The family grows around 20 acres of onions on their 440 acre farm in Limavady and manages 120 acres in Cambridgeshire, England.

The milder climate in the south of England means the growing season for onions is slightly longer there.

The firm processes around 3,500 tonnes of onions a year and produces a range of onions including crispy onions such as crispy tobacco onions and crispy chilli onions as well as traditional brown onions, red onions, shallots and garlic.

To ensure a year-round supply, the firm also imports onions from New Zealand during a six-week period in the summer. However, this is only done as a last resort at a time when no countries in the Northern Hemisphere are able to grow onions.

The family grow brown onions, red onions, garlic and shallots which are packed in a purpose-built facility on the farm under supermarket brands, while the cripsy onions are sold under the family's Milgro brand.

Sainsbury's, Asda, Tesco and the Co-Op are among the supermarkets the company supplies, and Milgro onions account for around half of all onions sold in Northern Ireland Henderson stores.

Gerald Miller runs the enterprise alongside his wife Irene and two sons William and Ian on their farm in the Roe Valley at the foothills of Binevenagh Mountain near Limavady.

He says the area's fertile soil makes is ideal for growing tasty onions.

Onions are grown from March through to September in Northern Ireland before they are harvested and cured. Gerald says he will start planting the next batch of onion seeds this week.

Gerald said: "Northern Ireland's climate isn't great for growing onions but we are lucky that we are sheltered between the mountains of Donegal and the Sperrins and have good stone-free, free-draining ground.

"It was always something that we wanted to do but we just needed to find the right product to go into. We started growing onions in 1989 and have always sold to supermarkets and other smaller retailers; first of all it was Stewarts, Safeways and then Morrisons.

"We decided it would be a good way to add value to onions that were over-sized for the supermarkets.

"They wouldn't have been wasted, but they would have been sold to processors for very little to make coleslaw or for other food production but now it means we can do the processing ourselves.

"This product isn't made in England and the sales have been growing quickly. We only started processing onions three years ago and already it accounts for around 12% of our business."

Milgro, was also recently short-listed for the finals of Local Business Accelerators, a campaign to boost smaller companies.

Belfast Telegraph

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