Bracing for Brexit: Innovative veg exporter details plans
Brexit is looming, but Mash Direct – one of the North’s best-known food exporters – is thinking ahead by launching four innovative new products in just one month.
But it’s not the only way the firm is innovating as it braces itself for Brexit – the company is also weighing up the possibility of opening an EU base.
Mash Direct made its mark on the value-added vegetable market at a time when many veg growers faced prices below the cost of production – but now leaving the EU is bringing new challenges to its door.
The Co. Down family-owned business has been innovating with its range of prepared mashed vegetable products since it launched 13 years ago.
Martin Hamilton, an arable Comber-based farmer, came up with the idea – which has become a favourite of many British and Irish families – at a time when he was seriously considering selling parts of the farm.
Martin’s wife, Tracy, who also runs the business, said: “The prices we were getting for our wonderful vegetables were declining and declining and we had to really think about what we could do to survive as a farm – it was that critical.
We could have had 12 fantastic cauliflowers and by the time we paid for the packaging and to get them to market we were actually getting paid less than the cost of production – that’s how bad it was.
At one point, the couple considered turning their farm into a golf course, and even had an 18-hole course designed – but planning issues late on in the process meant the idea fell through.
A rural village was also once planned for the farm. However, when 1,200 people signed a petition against it, the couple decided to think again.
“A very close friend and neighbour had a party and at this stage we were really thinking about what we were going to do,” Tracy said.
“After a couple of glasses of whiskey at the party, Martin said to him that we were going to add value to our vegetables – we were going to start cooking and making mashed potato – so that was really the starting point in 2003.
“So the next morning [our friend] came up and we looked at converting the outbuildings.
“We started working very closely with Loughry [College]; we knew exactly what we wanted to do in terms of keeping the goodness in the vegetables and they were extremely helpful.
We priced a steam cooker and it was astronomical – we were starting from a shoe-string because this was a major risk for us and we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes at all.
“We were wondering what we were going to do but between Martin and our good friend Tony, they were able to make one; we were able to control exactly what we wanted, and to this day, we are still manufacturing our own equipment.”
Today it takes around 3,000ac to produce enough veg for the business, with the furthest land around 26 miles away from the farmyard in Comber. The firm sources as much as it can locally, but ingredients such as sweet potato and onions are imported.
Martin also manages Mash Direct’s costs by forward-buying; currently he agrees milk and butter prices six months ahead with Northern Ireland creameries.
He sees the challenges of Brexit as a time to innovate.
He said: “Like everybody in business or in media we are trying to extract any information out of our politicians we can – it’s a bit like trying to nail a jelly on a wall trying to get straight answers – I really don’t think they have the information.
“Our plans are, as of the last two or three months, just to work out what’s best for M.H. Farms and Mash Direct and that will mean a bit more investment. We are extending the business for more and more automation – it will make us sharper on the market place.
We are heading down the line of a lot more heavy-duty automation – in all honesty, we should have been doing it anyway but sometimes you just need that trigger to make it happen.
“It will mean that we will be looking at something in Europe at some stage but if there’s any question over us operating in Europe we will have to go in. But as sixth-generation farmers here in Comber there’s no risk of us running away from here.”
More than a sixth of Mash Direct’s produce is destined for the Republic of Ireland – its biggest export market – but the firm also ships its products as far as the Middle East and is currently in discussions with buyers as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong.
Martin said: “The big market is obviously the UK – you have 60 million people on one island, well-concentrated. If you can make shipments in bulk you can really grow a business there once you get the opportunity to open up with them – and that’s the tricky part.
“We have chased some of the big supermarkets for years backwards and forwards on airplanes – you think you’re making progress and then the buyer changes and you’re right back to the start but we have had some superb achievements with some of them.”
The firm keeps an eye on the latest trends; its newest innovation – ‘nourish bowls’ – will see it launch three low-calorie, ready-to-eat meals in flavours inspired by regions around the world.
It comes just a few weeks after the firm launched its new beer-battered chips, made using craft ale produced just a few miles away.
Tracy and Martin’s sons Lance (31) and Jack (29) are both involved in the business. Jack takes control of Mash Direct’s marketing and reaching out to new markets. He explained that the challenge with chips, like the other products was making something healthy and also gluten-free.
He said: “People have always asked us: ‘Why don’t you do chips?’
“It is a company policy of ours not to have any red ‘traffic lights’ on [the packaging of] any of our products and so we wanted to make a chip that was crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside without having a high fat content.
“By creating a gluten-free, beer batter to lightly coat the potatoes, we are able to create an innovative chip that’s completely different from others available in the market place and still stay true to our roots.
“These chips have been years in the making and we are proud to have waited so long to bring them to market because we think they are perfect.”