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'I could envisage a lift in prices for farmers at the end of the year'

By Margaret Canning

Published 11/08/2015

Margaret Canning and Martin Hamilton enjoy lunch at Hadskis
Margaret Canning and Martin Hamilton enjoy lunch at Hadskis

It turns into something of a busman's lunch for Martin Hamilton, the elegantly turned-out managing director of Mash Direct, when I order a side dish of champ to accompany the seabass.

Martin, who grew up on the mainly arable family farm in Co Down, showed an entrepreneurial flair from a young age as an Inst schoolboy and had his own herd of cattle with his eldest brother.

He left the family enterprise to set up in business with wife Tracy, who he met at a rugby club.

That business became Mash Direct in 2004, when they had just four employees and sold to independent retailers around Belfast in a rented van.

Now there are over 100 staff and the company had turnover of nearly £12m and pre-tax profit of nearly £0.6m in the year to December 2014. Their two sons, Lance and Jack, also work there.

As well as the retail arm of the business, Martin and Tracy also sell mash to pub chains around the UK and bulk mash to producers of fish and chicken pies.

They grow vegetables on around 1,400 acres of land around Co Down, and Martin is proud to work seven days a week.

"Walking around Tyrella and Bishopscourt to look at what we're growing just doesn't feel like work," he says.

The company is also a major exporter, with deals with the supermarket multiples in Great Britain and sales to Dubai, Oman and Qatar, although Martin does acknowledge there can be "rough and tumble" in the export trade.

Our maître d' in Hadskis is happy to meet Martin, and praises Mash Direct products - especially their carrot and parsnip.

Indeed, carrot and parsnip is the firm's most popular product. It - and the separate carrot, parsnip and turnip combo - have recently won Great Taste Awards - the fifteenth and sixteenth the business has picked up.

The carrot and parsnip was praised for its "good, clean honest" qualities, while the carrot, turnip and parsnip was given with the compliment of "having sweet root vegetables aromas".

Martin has sympathy for the plight of farmers reeling from the combined whammies of low prices, strong sterling and harsh international conditions. But he is also cautiously optimistic.

"It's cyclical," he says. "I could envisage a lift in prices at the end of the year or beginning of next year. When you've hair the colour of mine, you've seen it quite a few times in your lifetime. It will turn the corner again."

Martin is tight-lipped on what his upcoming product line consists of, but he keeps himself up to date by perusing seed catalogues and forward-planning.

His firm was quick to jump on the craze for superfood kale, a Brassica that is a beloved vegetable of healthy eating gurus. However, he cautions: "It's a lovely, hardy vegetable but it needs to be cooked properly by steaming."

Lunch is almost but not quite so virtuous for us, with both of us plumping for baked, salted seabass with head still proudly on, served with samphire and a side order of a salad - and mash.

The Bill, Hadskis, Donegall Street, Belfast

Margaret had: Seabass ..........................£18.50

Diet Coke ...............................................£2.00

Champ ..................................................£3.00

Americano ............................................£2.50

Martin had: Seabass ..............................£18.50

Green salad ............................................£3.00

Cappuccino: ..........................................£2.50

Total: ....................................................£50.00

Belfast Telegraph

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