Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's most innovative farmers and food producers honoured with special awards at Balmoral Show


Parading the cattle around the ring from an early age at Balmoral Show
Parading the cattle around the ring from an early age at Balmoral Show
M&S Farming for the Future Young Producer winner Alexander Lyttle
Seven year-old Quentin Farren from Dungiven at the Balmoral Show
M&S Farming for the Future Innovation winner Jonathan Ewing
Co Armagh beef farmer John Dobson

By Rachel Martin

A poultry farmer from Co Tyrone has been named one of Northern Ireland's most innovative farmers at an awards ceremony at Balmoral Show celebrating forward-thinking food producers.

Among the farmers enjoying the industry's four-day showcase, the feeling is clear - those who can't adapt to the rapidly changing times will soon get left behind.

Hen houses with computerised ventilation systems, cow pedometers, robotic milking machines, recycling systems and solar panels are some of the things you'll find these days in the yards and fields of some of Northern Ireland's most innovative farmers.

Retailer Marks & Spencer was among those showcasing the producers pushing the region's agri-food industry forward at its Farming for the Future awards on Thursday.

Poultry farmer Jonathan Ewing from Mulnagore, Co Tyrone took the prize for innovation which recognises producers who are pushing the boundaries in their sector.

Jonathan's attention to detail has helped him to establish a successful and efficient free range egg enterprise after making the switch from broiler chicken rearing just seven years ago.

The Mulnagore man started out in broiler production more than 20 years ago.

The business expanded extensively over the years and now has five chicken houses, but the decision was taken to switch over to egg production in 2010 and, in a further change, the farm is now converting to free range egg production.

The first 16,000 free range hens were housed earlier this year and the firm now provides eggs to M&S through Co Fermanagh firm Skea Eggs.

But the innovation doesn't stop there - Jonathan uses a computerised ventilation system to ensure the chicken houses are kept at the perfect temperature across the whole farm as well as to maintain hen welfare and manage feed intakes.

And the whole enterprise is powered as sustainably as possible - technology is also employed to keep down energy costs, one of the largest overheads on the farm. Jonathan has also invested considerably in renewable energy, installing solar panels which are able to provide most of the farm's energy.

But it was Co Armagh beef farmer John Dobson - husband of former UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson - who scooped the 'Outstanding Producer' award.

Judges were particularly impressed with John's willingness to share good practice with other farmers. Looking internationally, he has managed to learn from some of the top farmers in the world and shares his knowledge with others back home through tours of his farm.

Meeting with, and learning from, world-renowned beef farmers in the US, Canada and across Europe, John has been able to innovate, enhance and expand his herd to become one of Northern Ireland's leading beef finishers. Alexander Lyttle from Newtownards won the retailer's Young Producer Award. Alexander farms alongside his father and mother, Roy and Sheila Lyttle.

Their business produces a range of seasonal vegetables, including spring onions, leeks, celery, beetroot and chives on the Ards Peninsula in Co Down.

The 24-year-old plays a very active role in running the vegetable growing enterprise. He helps to manage the farm's 130 acres of vegetable crops, 65 acres of cereals and its 35 members of staff. 

Since joining the farm full time, Alexander has had a significant influence on the farm's development, adding to the range of products, overseeing the construction of a purpose-built chemical store and sprayer filling area, managing cover crops and grass margins to reduce the exposed soil, as well as implementing schemes which have increased wildlife on the farm.

Over in the Northern Ireland food pavilion, Weir's Organic Raw Milk, Neary Nogg's Stoneground Chocolate and Broughgammon's Cabrito (kid goat) won Food NI awards.

The awards saw products from over 100 companies come under the scrutiny of the judging panel which included MasterChef judge Charles Campion and food writer Xanthe Clay.

The panel was impressed by the "outstandingly fresh and rich taste" of the organic raw milk from Weir's farm, a business owned by husband and wife team Deane and Kerrie Weir.

The milk was awarded 'Best Food and Drink Product' in the pavilion.

The Weirs run a 70 acre organic farm in the Armagh town and source milk from their herd of British Friesian cattle. They sell milk direct from the farm and also run a delivery service to customers. They began selling organic raw milk three years ago.

The 'Best Stand Award' was won by Broughgammon Farm in Ballycastle, Co Antrim.

Belfast Telegraph