Fivemiletown Creamery sale talks sparks job loss fears
The future of one of Ireland's oldest creameries, Fivemiletown, is hanging in the balance.
Owners of the Co Tyrone cheese producer are engaged in "delicate" negotiations over the future of the Co Tyrone business - sparking fears over the potential loss of 50 jobs.
It is believed the owners, who have suffered profit losses, are considering selling the company.
It's the only independent specialist cheesemaker in Northern Ireland.
A spokesman for Fivemiletown Creamery said: “There are delicate negotiations going on about the future of the business because of difficult trading conditions, losses over a period and issues around the milk pool.”
He said there were no redundancy issues "at the moment", adding, "It should be resolved in a few weeks."
Two major dairy companies, believed to be Glanbia and Lakeland Dairies, are involved in the talks, according to local newspaper the Impartial Reporter.
It says two options are being considered: Lakeland would keep the plant as a going concern, or Glanbia would purchase the milk pool which extends across Fermanagh and the Clogher Valley.
The second option would mean the loss of the 50 jobs.
The paper reports that farmers who are suppliers and members of the Fivemiletown and Brookeborough Dairy Co-operative Society met in the Valley Hotel in Fivemiletown on Tuesday to hear about the plans, and employees were called to a meeting on Wednesday morning.
A majority vote of around 75 per cent will be necessary to secure either deal, it is understood.
SDLP agriculture spokesman Joe Byrne said the news was a matter of huge concern.
"Fivemiletown Creamery is a vital business in Tyrone which employs 50 people. It has operated since 1898 and is part of the fabric of the area. The creamery is a consistent award winner for its products, particularly its cheese," he said.
The closure of the business would be a huge loss to the area, Mr Byrne said, as it is "vital to the local economy in the Clougher Valley area and a vital cog in the local agri-food sector".
"I think it is vital that Fivemiletown Creamery survives and provides a service to the dairy farmers of Clougher Valley and continues to produce premier cheese," he added.
"I can only hope that any new owners would reflect on the incredible products that the creamery produces and the very positive contribution to the local economy and think twice about any plans to close the creamery."
UUP MLA Tom Elliott said it would be a huge blow to both the staff and to the milk producers who supply the creamery if it were to close down. He hopes to meet with management "in the near future".
The company, which saw record sales in 2011, goes back to 1898 when Fellonburg Montgomery and Sir Arthur Douglas Brooke merged their two farming cooperatives, Fivemiletown and Brookeborough.
But while it has its roots in the 19th century, Fivemiletown has been breaking new ground in the cheese industry.
The company started off, like many co-ops in pre-war days, as a collection point for milk, moving into butter manufacture in 1947. After the war the company went into bottling milk.
In 1996 this interest was sold to Bangor Dairies and cheesemaking began in the late 1960s, continuing into the present day on the site of an old Methodist church.
Cheese is now the only product made, although byproducts such as cream are sold to industrial producers.
In recent years the creamery has won a raft of awards - as well as important contracts that saw its products fill the shelves of all the main supermarkets.
Managing director Mervyn McCaughey told the Belfast Telegraph in 2010: "We haven't seen any signs of the recession in our business. We’re always adding new customers, new consumers."
Lakeland Dairies Group is Ireland's second largest dairy processing co-operative. Glanbia plc is an international producer of cheese and other products including whey protein.
Further reading:Creamery is big cheese after supply deal with retail chain