Price wars saw Cork couple fight back with crisp production

Supermarket vegetable price wars prompted an east Cork farming couple to think outside the box, and go into potato crisp production.

Sandra and Joe Burns, who have a 36ac holding in Ballycurraginny, Killeagh, specialise in vegetables, and tillage, for crop rotation.

“We started producing vegetable crisps made from carrot, parsnip, and beetroot, in March 2014 – due to price wars coming up to Christmas 2012, such as the five cent offers.

“We sell all our ‘dirty bunched veg’ at farmers’ markets in Mahon Point; Mallow; and Douglas every week. We had to diversify our business because of the supermarket price wars, so ‘Joe’s Farm Crisps’ was launched,” said Sandra Burns.

We had the three vegetables – carrots, parsnip and beetroot – growing, so they were the obvious choice to work with.

“There were a lot of trials before we got it right, but we have learned so much all the way, which is brilliant too.

“We wanted to bring something new, fresh and different, to the existing huge potato crisp market. I personally didn’t want the crisps loaded with flavourings.

“I want people to experience the taste of the actual vegetables – the sweetness of the beetroot and carrot – and getting that parsnip taste just at the end,” Burns said.

“We first brought our vegetable crisps to Mahon Point Farmers’ Market and it all started from there. After only two weeks in business, we were contacted by Kevin Burke, the head chef in the five-star Castlemartyr Resort.

“He had bought a bag of our crisps at the farmers’ market. Now, over three years on, our vegetable crisps garnish sandwiches that are served in the hotel.

“It has all been as a result of word of mouth, or sampling, that our product is in over 60 independent stockists around the country.

“We took part in the Supervalu Food Academy, and just finished a Bord Bia / KSG food service programme.

“We have won several food awards in Blas na hEireann, and the Food Awards Ireland, since 2014,” said Burns.

We started in a mobile kitchen unit and, two years ago, we constructed a purpose-built food-grade unit on the farm.

In November 2016, the Burns family brought out a mixed potato crisp, made from purple, pink and white potatoes, grown on the farm last year.

They invested in bigger machinery in February 2017, with the help of a horticultural grant through the Department of Agriculture. It allows them to produce 30kg of finished product per hour.

“We have one person employed in the crisp business, and Joe has one in the farming side of things.

“We are changing our packaging this year, moving from having them all hand-stamped to having them printed.

“I suppose the sky is the limit with the new machine, and I’m also working on new products,” Burns said.

Their advice to aspiring artisan food producers? “You must have drive, passion and believe in your product, and know that it’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s an all-day everyday job, even if you’re not physically making crisps.”

The challenges are ongoing – from fear of frost wiping out the vegetables, to the poor-quality broadband the Burns’ endured for years.

“It’s so hard to explain broadband problems to businesses in Dublin, that would never have experienced the problem.

“Our broadband has improved, but we were quoted €32,000 for three-phase current to be installed for the new machine. We ended up buying a generator.”

However, the overall mood at ‘Joe’s Farm Crisps’ is upbeat. “It’s great to be able to run a business in rural Ireland. It’s fantastic to be able to be there for the kids after school, and have no commuting problems.”