Meet the farmers crowned NI’s most innovative producers

A potato producer who uses seaweed as fertiliser and a dairy farmer putting welfare first have come out tops in an award ceremony rewarding the province’s most innovative farmers.

Local producers for Marks & Spencer (M&S) have been rewarded for their excellence in farming at its ‘Farming for the Future’ Awards presentation, which took place at the Balmoral Show yesterday.

The winners were:
  • Outstanding Producer Award – David Irwin, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim;
  • Innovation Award – Philip Meade, Co. Meath;
  • Young Producer Award – Andrew Shanks, Co. Monaghan;
  • Contribution to Rural Communities Award (Prince’s Countryside Fund) – John Dobson, Waringstown, Co. Armagh.

Oustanding producer

David Irwin from Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, scooped the Outstanding Producer Award – which champions forward-thinking individuals whose technical ability or business aptitude promises to make a positive impact on their sector.

David farms in partnership with his mother and father, milking 230 pedigree Holstein Friesian cows.

The Urbal Herd supplies M&S stores across Ireland with fresh milk through Lacpatrick Dairies and the family is committed to continually improving its business.

“We just try and do things as well as we can,” said David.

“We’re proud to have significantly reduced antibiotic usage on the farm in recent years. Regular mobility scoring helps us to ensure cows’ feet are looked after and we’ve now invested in concrete grooving throughout the yards to make the yards easier for the cows to walk on.

‘Moving forward and tweaking’

“It’s a case of moving forward and constantly tweaking and improving our protocols to hopefully be the best that we can be.”

Cow welfare is a priority on the farm, and the team’s attention to detail in this area led to Nick Bell MRCVS – who oversees cow health for the M&S dairy farmers – putting the farm forward for this award.

Bell said David had embraced the supermarket’s standards with “positivity and enthusiasm”.

He said: “David leads a young and disciplined team where every aspect of herd management is meticulously thought about and implemented to high standards.

“Not only does he achieve all that is required; but he must represent one of the most efficient dairies within M&S.”

Innovating for the future

Philip Meade, from Co. Meath, scooped the Innovation Award which recognises producers who are pushing the boundaries in their sector.

The Meade family first started selling potatoes in local towns in the Co. Meath area in 1977.

Today, the Meade Potato Company employs approximately 240 people, and Philip – along with his father, Philip, brother Patrick and sister Eleanor – now oversees the production of a range of potatoes and fresh vegetables – and supplies M&S through Avondale Foods in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.

Philip is committed to running a business that is as efficient and sustainable as possible and this has led the Meade Potato Company to roll-out several innovative business initiatives.

Sustainability and profitability

In order to minimise the company’s environmental impact, Philip has worked with farm managers to reduce the company’s use of fungicides by 24%, insecticides by 33%, and increase the use of organic fertilisers – including seaweed – to feed crops.

To extract the full value from the potato crop, Philip also runs a ‘Zero Food Waste’ policy.

Any potatoes that don’t meet customer specification are donated to local food banks or sold for stock feed; potato waste is fed to cattle and starch is extracted from peelings so that it can be sold into the ingredients market.

To improve the sustainability of manufacturing, Philip has overseen a 30% reduction in product packaging waste, and reduced plastic usage by at least 29%.

Efficiencies

Wind turbines have been erected to provide renewable energy sources and Philip is investigating rainwater harvesting to reduce the company’s main water usage.

A new computer system has also been introduced, which carefully analyses each task in various manufacturing processes, enabling Philip to target and improve tasks carried out on production lines.

Philip said: “I am always looking at ways to do things better, how we can take more value from a crop and any value-added complementary projects that might work.

Efficiency is the basis of all profitable, sustainable businesses and innovation is at the heart of efficiency.

Philip is committed to educating fellow growers about sustainability – devising a Sustainability Awareness Sheet that is distributed to all the company’s growers and facilitated training sessions to fellow vegetables growers through the Bord Bia Sustainable Horticulture Assurance Scheme.