Enterprising Northern Ireland women are making a mark in food industry
It started out as a hobby for Lorna Robinson, but little more than a decade later, she is taking the food industry by storm.The 57-year-old mother-of-three is the managing director of Cloughbane Farm Shop which now produces and distributes around 20,000 pies and other food products a week. It is a far cry from its humble beginnings.
The Robinson family has been farming in and around Pomeroy for 150 years, stretching over four generations.
Until 2002, it was simply a farm selling its beef, lamb and free range eggs to wholesalers.
But then, the council asked the family to become involved in its plan to establish a monthly farmers' market in the area and the business has flourished since.
"We were asked to be founder members of the market and help to get it off the ground," said Lorna.
"In the beginning we were getting a butcher to cut our lamb and we were selling it at the market - it really took off from there.
"People loved the meat so much, but the market was only on once a month and people wanted to buy it more often which is where the idea of the farm shop came from.
"It started off as part-time, so we were open on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
"We were selling our beef, lamb and some vegetables and it was based in the farmyard in an old converted outbuilding.
"All our beef was our own and was matured for 28 days - it was hindquarter beef which won't mean much to the average person, but will mean more to farmers.
"People were buying up all that meat and we were left with the forequarter meat which is the part you would get stewing meat and mince from, so I had the idea that I could make a few pies."
In the kitchen of her farmhouse, Lorna developed some simple recipes which were the beginning of the company's food range.
The first three flavours, chicken, ham and leek; steak, onion and mushroom; and savoury mince pie, continue to this day to be among the most popular products. Lorna is convinced the popularity of the range is down to her insistence to use only the highest quality ingredients.
A large part of the success is also down to word of mouth and the company's reputation.
They have never employed a dedicated salesperson although Lorna has made good use of her degree in marketing and finance that she was studying for at the same time as the launch of the farmers' market.
"It was only a hobby, but I took it seriously," she said.
"I spent time working on a logo and labelling, and printing out flyers that we handed out at the market.
"When we started making the pies it was the shops that came to us and asked us to supply them.
"We now stock the big supermarkets - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Musgrave - but to be honest we never approached them.
"We were at the Balmoral Show and they all approached us."
As the business has grown, so too has the range of products on offer.
They now sell ready-made meals and side portions, such as champ and stuffing.
As the business grew, Lorna made the decision to open the shop on a full-time basis and with that came the requirement for bigger and better premises. Of course, none of this came cheap. "I can remember needing new lighting for the shop and it cost £3,500 and us thinking it was a huge sum of money," she said. "You wouldn't get much for £3,500 these days."
However, by far the greatest financial commitment came when the family used the farm in order to secure an investment from the bank.
"I have to thank my husband because the land has been in his family for generations, but he had enough faith in me and the business and it has paid off," she said.
The risk to the family business has paid off and is now very much a family affair.
Both of Lorna's sons are involved - one on the farming side of things and the other works alongside his mum to develop the business.
Another important aspect to the success of the business is the staff they employ. They now have a workforce of 40, not including the people employed to work in the actual shop.
Lorna has worked hard to build up the business from her kitchen to a multi-million pound company, but even she has at times been overwhelmed by its success.
"We thought the farm shop was going to bring in about £6,000 or £7,000 when it first opened but in the first week we collected about £1,000," she said. "The farm shop and food business now sells about £4.5m, but it is a lot more stressful than it was when it was just a hobby."
Profits are growing for Co Armagh firm
Elaine Shaw manages a company that is hoping to sell 30,000 tonnes of mushrooms this year alone. Northway Mushrooms in Blackwatertown, Co Armagh, is a producer organisation, representing a group of mushroom growers who are marketing and selling their produce to retailers, wholesalers and the catering industry.
And with a projected turnover this year of £50m, it is clear that Elaine and her team are doing something right.
Elaine (42) has a degree in banking and finance, but was advised against a career in the industry.
Coming from a farming family, she became involved in the mushroom growing industry instead.
She has been working in Northway Mushrooms since it was set up in 2000.
The not-for-profit company, which employs 30 people, now represents 30 mushroom growers.
It has increased in size 10 fold, with growers’ average returns increasing by 20% since 2005.
Elaine believes it is a clear example of the benefits of farmers working together.
“We educate and support growers to ensure maximum yields, improve product quality, reduce costs and shorten the supply chain,” she said. “We support our members to achieve and maintain a competitive edge.
“Before Northway was established, growers marketed mushrooms on their own with no collaboration or partnership working, resulting in no group buying, higher costs and growers being more exposed to changes in the market place.
“Route to market could be complex with no financial assistance for capital, marketing or training.
“As a producer organisation we organise and co-ordinate support and advice which would be largely inaccessible to an individual business — and we make smaller farms more accessible to wholesalers and retail multiples.” While Elaine explained that certain farmers produce mushrooms for particular buyers, one of the benefits of working together is that they can help fulfil orders.
“So one mushroom grower produces for a particular shop but that shop may then decide it does not need that many mushrooms so the producer can then supply it to another buyer,” she said.
“It can work the other way, too, so if a buyer wants more mushrooms than the producer can grow, one of the other producers can help them out.
“It is a win-win situation.”
According to Elaine, 178,000 tonnes of mushrooms are grown across the UK for the retail market and Northway Mushrooms produces about 18% of that.
She is keen that the company continues to expand.
One way they are hoping to do this is through the creation of their own compost site. With an initial investment of £17m, the facility is only possible through the combined efforts of members.
The yard, in Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, will be the first of its kind in the UK with technology installed to neutralise odours from the process of making compost.
Elaine said: “The compost will be the highest quality which will allow growers to maximise yield and quality.
“This will strengthen the supply chain and give Northway total control over their supply chain. This investment will give our members the opportunity to expand and fill demand for UK produce.
“The opportunity is there to win market share from Dutch and Polish suppliers, provided we can produce the product at a competitive price.”
Such has been the success of Northway Mushrooms that it has expanded and now runs a similar system for people who grow strawberries.
They represent five strawberry growers and recently secured a contract to supply strawberries to Dunnes Stores — the only major retailer in Northern Ireland to stock Northern Ireland strawberries. Elaine believes Northway Mushrooms can maximise on the fact that it is a local supplier.
“People do want to buy local and we are running a campaign asking people to tell their shops that they want local produce,” she said.
“It is specifically around strawberries because of the time of year. We actually have a leaflet that people can take into their shops saying they want local strawberries.”
This is just one of the ways Northway Mushrooms works to increase awareness of the industry. They also took a huge mushroom learning tunnel to the Balmoral Show, which took members of the public behind the scenes of the industry.
The company also runs a schools’ programme in which blocks of compost are delivered to schools to allow kids to grow their own mushrooms.
It is all part of Northway’s ongoing vision to improve awareness of the industry and increase the return for its members.