‘It’s not me; it’s the whole team. Without them, I couldn’t do anything’ – Ned English
The Irish Grassland Association (IGA) held its annual Dairy Conference in the Charleville Hotel, Co. Cork, yesterday, Wednesday, January 8.
As part of the pre-conference networking event – which took place at the venue on Tuesday evening – a panel of three unique, but very successful, different-enterprise farmers took to the stage to explain their individual pathways and recipes for success.
They also reflected on their farming journeys, while shining some light on what direction agriculture will take over the next decade.
One of those farmers was the very successful vegetable grower and tillage farmer Ned English who has become one of the leading suppliers of potatoes to the supermarket giant, Lidl.
Ned, alongside his son Edward and daughter Niamh, run Castlecor Potatoes just outside Mallow, in Co. Cork, growing some 450ac of potatoes, 150ac of onions and approximately 1,300ac of tillage – of which 280ac is owned.
However, this did not just happen overnight.
Telling his story to the youthful audience, Ned said: “Our product consistently made the grade, so we could produce what the supermarkets wanted consistently, but we were only getting a fraction of the price because we were going through a merchant who was packing it and then supplying it on.
“So, we started knocking on the door of supermarkets and one of those doors was Lidl.”
After the first meeting; nothing happened. 12 months passed and the door was knocked on again. After a period of time, a buyer arrived on the farm with a message: ‘When can you start?’
That was 14-15 years ago.
However, vegetables and tillage were not Ned’s first port of call; he tried his hand at dairying.
“When I came from college, I inherited a farm. Milk seemed to be the most attractive form of farming at that time; there wasn’t much in beef, cattle or sheep, so dairy was what I wanted to do.
“But, I’m a failed dairy farmer,” he joked.
Currently, Ned employs 43 people in the pack house and another 15-16 people indirectly in the rest of the business. And while potatoes were the first product sold directly to Lidl, another soon followed.
“We have also gone into onions. Lidl wanted onions because they wanted to promote as much Irish in their stores as possible; this is one of the things they wanted.
“We had to facilitate this particular request because we are in the business of servicing our customers; however, it did provide challenges, but we had to overcome them,” he said.
When asked what sets the business apart from other competitors, he added:
“I think being customer oriented and realising that I need a bob out of this and that they have to sell our product; the day we come irrelevant to them, we’re not in business anymore.
“I genuinely believe if we can do the job for them we are not exposed. The day we slip our standards, we are definitely in trouble and we could have 10 different customers and it’s still the same thing.
“So, every day of the week we have to make a margin for ourselves, but also keep produce competitive on the shelves and do the job with them as partners – that makes us important to them,” he explained.
As mentioned both Ned’s son and daughter – Edward and Niamh – are involved in the business.
“We are very lucky that they are interested in the business. I think with all the people working and the vibrancy of the things we have to be involved with every day, it certainly helps them stay in the business.”
Commenting on the changes over the years, the Cork native explained:
“One of the big changes we noticed when you are expanding from a small potato farmer to a larger scale operation is that you start to get involved in managing people.
“I think when you regard the people you work with as your partners and human beings – and that you’re no better than them – and you motivate them and look after them, you create an environment in which they take responsibility for the various tasks.
“And, in fairness it’s not me; it’s the whole team. Without them, I couldn’t do anything.
“We have over 40 people employed on our farm and that is what we are most proud of today,” he concluded.