'Nobody really wants to sit down and peel these onions anymore'
The Balmoral Show is the biggest showcase for Northern Ireland's agri-food industry. With uncertainty in the market, it offers tentative firms an opportunity to celebrate
Food firms from across Northern Ireland will gather for the Balmoral Show from tomorrow, with many still tentatively awaiting the outcome from the Brexit saga.
Traditionally the agri-food industry's biggest annual showcase, the continued uncertainty from the status of the UK's future relationship with the EU has left many smaller businesses holding back from investing.
Gerald Miller, who heads Milgro in Limavady, our only major onion growing company, said his firm is adopting a "wait and see" approach.
A new report by InterTrade Ireland released this week suggested many smaller firms on both sides of the border are doing the same.
"There's so much still up in the air and uncertain and the uncertainty is keeping us from investing. We would invest more if we saw a settled market," said Gerald.
"We're investing enough to keep us ticking over, but in the last two or three years we're not investing as much as we could do until we see what's going to happen with Brexit."
However, the family-owned Limavady business, which supplies Asda, Sainsbury's and the Henderson Group, has continued to diversify. After successfully developing its own-range of tobacco onions, Milgro is now moving into ready sliced and diced products.
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"It's definitely a growth market. Looking back at prepared meals five or six years ago, the quality wasn't there. Now the quality is there, there are far better products and they're working well," said Gerald.
"What we see is customers looking for more convenience. Nobody really wants to sit down and peal these onions and chop them.
"They want to buy convenient food. People are out working, they don't want to be labouring over sinks, pealing spuds and onions. We feel there is a good market for semi-prepared or prepared foods."
Milgro started out as an experiment 30 years ago at Miller's Myroe farm.
Traditionally associated with cereals, the flat and stoneless ground proved an ideal setting to become Northern Ireland's first onion growing operation.
"They're not easy to grow and we've made plenty of mistakes over the last 30 years, but you learn from your mistakes," said Gerald.
Milgro's first major customers were the former Wellworths and Stewarts retail chains. It later sold to Safeway and then Asda, when it bought the company.
Sainsbury, Co-op and the Henderson Group are also major customers.
From those few experimental acres in 1989, the company now grows around 28 acres and imports a significant volume during high demand seasons. It generates a turnover of around £2.5m a year.
It remains a family operation, with Gerald's wife Irene and their sons William and Ian now full part of the business. William looks after the whole onion side of the business, while Ian oversees the expanding processing end.
Milgro successfully diversified into crispy tobacco onions around six years ago and more recently has made moves toward sliced and diced onions.
"It has multiplied up and has done well," said Gerald. "We now do four different flavours of tobacco onions, which is stocked by the supermarkets, some butchers and we export some into the Republic. We also do diced brown onions and sliced red onions. We are really only launching the sliced and diced onions, it's a new business we have gone into in the last month.
From a workforce of four, the company expanded over the years. Significant investment in mechanism means Milgro's 12 employees can run the entire operation.
"You're investing in more modern machinery all the time, speedier machinery, more technology," said Gerald.
But the investment has eased since the June 2016 EU referendum. While larger manufacturers have enacted contingency plans and stockpiling, Northern Ireland's small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have tended to ease back on major decisions.
Yesterday, InterTrade Ireland released its latest quarterly business monitor. Based on responses from 750 firms across the island, it found fewer (11%) planning to increase staff levels this year, with just 4% considering upgrading or changing premises.
Just 6% of SMEs plan to spend on research and development over the next 12 months. "We haven't carried out any propriety work on Brexit," said the farmer. "We don't have to forward purchase much product. We grow onions in England as well.
"We import onions from the southern hemisphere for about six weeks during the summer time, when everyone traditionally runs out of onions."
Something Milgro is planning to do, however, is move towards more environmentally friendly packaging.
"We are moving towards fully recyclable products, hopefully by the autumn time," said Gerald.
Despite the uncertainty in the market for growers, the Balmoral Show always offers a boost for agri-firms.
"Balmoral is always a good show for networking. You're meeting with families in the food hall. They understand food and want to know more, they want to know where it's coming from, what's in it," concluded Gerald.