Wicklow ‘oil baron’ harnesses soil quality with product range

Having taken over the family farm from his father in 2006, Keith Symes was inspired by a UK farmer who was growing, pressing and bottling oil seed rape.

After extensive research, he launched Wicklow Rapeseed Oil in November 2013.

A graduate of Tralee IT where he studied agricultural engineering, he was keen to add value to the farm which has passed down through generations of his family.

“I had been tillage farming, growing a variety of crops such as barley, wheat, oats and oil seed rape. The rich fertile soil and favourable climate in this area lends itself well to a high-quality harvest,” he said.

My passion for farming, along with my ambition to start a business which is linked with farming, led me to follow up on the idea of producing extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil. I saw an opening in the market for this great healthy product.

Keith received a grant from his local enterprise office and constructed a production facility on the 230ac family farm at Hawkstown Lower.

“We grow oil seed rape on the family farm and pay local farmers a premium price for growing oil seed rape. A certain variety of seed is used that thrives in the garden of Ireland’s finest soil and produces a flavoursome, healthy cooking oil of extra virgin standard,” Keith said.

“Oils are very like wines; the quality and flavour are affected by various parameters from farm to table.”

Expanding on this, Keith explained that these variables include: seed variety; climate; soil fertility; drying techniques; seed cleaning; cold pressing; seed and oil filtration.

“Before launching, we spent two years researching the market, attending courses, growing and harvesting various different seed types to find a seed variety that thrives in our soil conditions and produce a flavoursome rapeseed oil which is light in flavour and does not taint the flavour of your dish,” Keith said.

“We have evolved from being a local producer to a national supplier of cold-pressed extra virgin rapeseed oil, producing 2,000L of oil per week,” he said.

However, the process hasn’t always been easy. “Finding a distributor who will merchandise and distribute your products with as much care as you is a real challenge.

Building a good relationship with the store manager and personnel is very important.

“This helps to ensure your product is placed in premium locations within the store and staff will recommend your product to their customers,” said Keith.

“Our success to date has been due to our flavoursome oils and the support of Supervalu’s Food Academy programme, offering Wicklow Rapeseed Oil a route to market.

“This programme helps create thousands of jobs nationwide as every small company needs staff, PR agencies, materials, advertising and accountants,” he said.

“Premium restaurants are also using our products and placing them on customers’ tables so they can dress their own dish as required. As more and more people are moving away from processed foods towards natural Irish products, this has created a niche in the market,” Keith said.

In 2016, he decided to expand his range and develop ‘healthy heart’ products under the ‘Sussed’ brand.

“Sussed brand and product development was recently created as part of a team effort by Bord Bia’s SuperBrands programme, Begley Hutton, My Nutrition and St. Angela’s Food Technology. Over the past 12 months a huge amount of work has been undertaken at a value of €30,000,” he said.

Through ‘Sussed’, a cooking oil containing extra virgin rapeseed oil and algae oil was created which Keith claims is a new superfood.

He also recently launched an extra virgin two calorie rapeseed oil cooking spray aimed at slimmers and those who want to make food preparation easier.

The products are stocked in over 250 retailers nationwide including SuperValu, Dunnes Stores and Tesco. They are also showcased at events such as the National Ploughing Championships.

We recently installed a production facility on the family farm which freshly cleans and cold presses the seed. The extra virgin rapeseed oil is filtered and bottled. The husk from the seed is used for animal feed; no waste is created throughout this natural process.

“We have received excellent feedback from local school tours as students are fascinated throughout the whole process and soon realise the huge difference between standard refined oils and ours.”