Long Meadow Farm is one business opening its doors for Open Farm Weekend. The team tell Aine Toner how it’s moving with the times
The Bank of Ireland Open Farm Weekend is back from June 17-19 with a packed schedule of events to showcase Northern Irish farming at its best.
This is the first time since 2019 that farms can host in-person events and one of the businesses opening its gates is Long Meadow Farm in Portadown.
Owned by the McKeever family over three generations, it is currently under the stewardship of Pat and Catherine with their son Peter.
The family has focused on Bramley apple production with each generation growing a mix of varieties and using different planting processes to further refine the apples used.
Recently, Long Meadow has been praised for its cider, apple juice and cider vinegar — and the family isn’t stopping there.
“There’s days that it has its moments but we really enjoy it,” says Pat McKeever.
“There’s a lot more to come on the farm, different things happening on the farm. The younger generation see different things they want to do so it’ll encourage more people in tow to come out.
“For Open Farm, we want to do a lot of different things. We want to have other farmers and producers here too — people who make jam, selling bacon, things like that, let people see all the home produce that’s available which is very good.”
Long Meadow is one of 18 farms across the province welcoming visitors in an initiative led by the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
Its aim is to give a real behind the scene snapshot of the local farm to fork industry, or in Long Meadow’s case, tree to can.
Pat acknowledges the need to move the business with the times, diversifying where possible and where necessary.
“Daddy and his brother, 60 years ago, used to can their apples and now that’s disappeared. I think you get to a certain age and you look at things different. It has a cycle.
“We bottle our own juice and we’re starting to can our own cider — there’s the cans coming back into the family again which I thought would never have happened.
“When Daddy was alive, there was only about 100 trees to the acre and it took nearly 10-15 years for that really to mature. Now, the minimum orchard has 400 to 1,000 trees to the acre so it’s a whole different angle.
“Before Daddy passed away, he said if you enjoy it [working], you’ll never get rich but you’ll get a good income. There’s years you’ll do well and there’s years you’ll do not but that’s farming.”
Saying he loves this time of year as ‘everything is coming to life,’ Pat and his family have recently began tours, offering visitors an immersive experience of cider process… with a bit of traditional baking of course.
Catherine uses her grandmother’s griddle — easily over 60 years old — to bake traditional breads, before sharing her creations with visitors with cheese and chutney.
“If I am doing a demonstration within one of our experiences, I would always use my granny’s griddle just because there is history in that attached to it.
“It’s something that’s been handed down through the generations,” she says.
“My mother taught me and her mother taught her and now I’m teaching my girls, they’re making bread. It’s lovely to be able to hand those traditions down.”
The farm works closely with Visit Armagh and their local council and are part of the Orchard cluster group, along with other attractions based in the county. Their work has attracted both local and international attention.
“Already we’ve got interest from international tour operators who now want to come and experience this griddle bread that’s actually been baked on a traditional griddle,” explains Catherine.
“When the visitors come in the farm they get a whole experience from start to finish, so they’re sort of meeting the farmer, the producer, the maker all rolled into one.
“We’re very much a family run business here; we don’t employ anyone else.
“When our visitors come here to the farm, it’s us that they’re meeting. I think that makes it a wee bit more personal, that they know how involved we are.
“We go through the whole process of making our craft ciders and our apple cider vinegar.
“They get to taste the apple cider vinegar, the apple juices and the craft ciders.
“We have a large number of apple stores here, where we actually store our fruit from harvesting in September. We currently still have apples in storage and that’s from last September.
“We’ll actually open the hatches; they’re sealed units but we’ll open the hatches and take some of the fruit out and then our visitors taste those.
“Then we take them down through the orchard for a lovely orchard walk.”
The experience reflects that the farm runs on a 12-month cycle, which involves grafting, pollination, pruning and maintenance.
“I think people have this misconception that you’re only really busy at harvest time which is September/October,” says Catherine.
“But really you’re busy 12 months of the year because you have to maintain the orchards and look after them.
“If we didn’t do what we do, we wouldn’t have the quality of fruit that we have.
“And if you don’t have the quality of fruit, you don’t have the quality in the products.
“We try and keep our products as natural as possible. We don’t add anything to them, so there’s no concentrates, there’s no water in them, they’re 100% apple in all of our products.”
Diversification and innovation remain key to the running of Long Meadow.
“The business started off with Pat’s father; he planted the first orchards here in Long Meadow Farm,” says Catherine.
“It’s nice to see that’s the way it has progressed from those older mature trees, down to the new systems that Pat and Peter have planted here.
“It’s nice to see that diversification as well; we’ve moved on just from not solely being apple growers but now producing our own products and going that wee bit further and opening up the farm now to tourism.”
Despite Covid providing a knock, numbers of visitors for 2022 alone is described by Catherine as ‘colossal.’
“That’s just ourselves that’s doing that as a family run business. Sometimes I would say we would need cloned because there’s that many different jobs we seem to be doing!”
For more information on Bank of Ireland Open Farm Weekend, see www.openfarmweekend.com. For information on Long Meadow, see www.longmeadowcider.com