Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Friday 24 February 2017

Business is mushrooming

Leslie Codd tells Sean Gallagher how his family firm has become the country's largest supplier of mushrooms

Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher with Codd Mushrooms director Leslie Codd in Tullow, Co Carlow Picture: Mark Condren
Sean Gallagher with Codd Mushrooms director Leslie Codd in Tullow, Co Carlow Picture: Mark Condren

The Irish mushroom industry is now a major contributor to the Irish economy, employing more than 3,000 people. Earlier this week, I caught up with Leslie Codd, managing director of Codd Mushrooms in Carlow to learn about his business. Set up in 1989 and located on the family's farm outside Tullow, the company employs 225 staff and has an annual turnover of approximately €20m.

As experts in the production, packaging and marketing of mushrooms for the retail and catering sectors, the company has grown to become the largest supplier of mushrooms to the Irish market, supplying approx 52pc of all mushrooms consumed in Ireland. Among the firm's many customers are Aldi, Dunnes, Tesco and BWG. In addition to the home market, the company also exports about 5pc of its total produce to the UK.

Growing up in Cavan/ Monaghan, my memory of mushroom-growing is one of large poly tunnels packed with black plastic bags in which the mushrooms grew. As Leslie showed me around his 200,000 sq ft state-of-the-art production facility, I realise just how far the sector has now advanced.

For instance, the mushrooms are now grown in large metal trays. Known as Dutch Shelving, these trays are racked as many as six high and run for hundreds of feet. Each is filled with around nine inches of compost or, to give it its more technical term, substrate. This substrate contains a mix of chicken manure and straw (which provides nutrients for growth), gypsum (a lime-like material that helps to maintain the proper pH levels of the substrate) and mushroom spawn or seed. On top of this is a layer of peat moss used to help retain moisture.

"It normally takes about 18 days from when the trays are filled until the start of cropping or harvesting," said Leslie as he showed me around the expansive facility. "Cropping can then go on for a further 11 to 18 days after which each production unit is then cleaned out, sterilised, refilled and left ready for the next crop."

I discover too, that many of types of mushrooms sold in our shops are based on their age or how long they have been allowed to mature before being picked. For example, the younger ones are button mushrooms. These are firm with a delicate flavour. The next oldest are cup mushrooms, which are now the most popular and most versatile. And as they finally mature, the mushrooms become known as flats. These are larger in size and have an intense robust flavour, similar to field mushrooms.

"We also sell other popular varieties such as chestnut mushrooms, which have a more intense flavour than white varieties," said Leslie as he lifted a tray to show me their mottled light-brown colour. "Then we have the portabello mushroom, which is larger and has a meaty texture - making it an ideal substitute for meat. We also produce a range of conveniently pre-sliced packs for those with busy lifestyles."

Picking is labour intensive and carried out by hand. The Dutch Shelving or long metal trays are designed so that pickers can fully reach in from either side while adjustable metal platform enables them to reach the higher shelving. Once picked, the mushrooms are then graded, weighed and vacuum cooled before being packed and labelled for distribution. With more than seven large articulated trucks of freshly-picked mushrooms leaving the facility every day, the scale of operations here is huge. Growing the business from scratch has taken time though.

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Leslie Codd grew up on the family farm where the production facility is now located.

"I never actually had a job or worked for anyone else," said Leslie.

Immediately after school and keen to pursue a career in agriculture, both he and his brother Raymond went on to study with Teagasc.

Straight afterwards and still only 18, Leslie and his brother set up their fledging mushroom business in a small rented facility in nearby Myshall. Using small conventional tunnel units, they began supplying a broker who was targeting the UK. After only a year in business, the pair built their own facility in Tullow and soon after, expanded their operation to include a second facility in Baltinglass.

"It became increasingly clear to us that, to secure our future in the industry, we needed to cut out the middle men and gain control of our own distribution channels," said Leslie. "We decided to invest in building our own packaging line and quickly got to work on targeting potentially customers directly. Our first large retail customer was Aldi who were followed shortly after by Dunnes Stores, Tesco and BWG."

Soon the business was doing so well that Leslie and Raymond could no longer keep up with orders. In 2008, they closed their first two units and invested over €5m in constructing their new facility on the family's farm, a move that enabled them to centralise their activities, create further capacity and achieve greater operational efficiencies. Following completion of the new build they later merged with a similar-sized mushroom company, further increasing their turnover and providing them with the scale they needed to maintain a profitable outlook.

Leslie and Raymond have complementary skills and aptitudes. Leslie acts as the company's managing director and looks after finance, customer relations, marketing and strategy while Raymond, as operations director, is responsible for taking care of production, ensuring efficiency of the plant as well as overseeing all expansions and site developments. It's a combination that has produced a winning formula.

"However, we owe much of the success of our business to the passion and dedication of our staff," said Leslie. "When we look back to where it all started in 1989, we had just five staff. Today, we have 225. "

Unlike many other Irish mushroom producers, the business has not been severely affected by the fallout from Brexit. This is largely due to the fact that 95pc of everything the company produces is destined for the Irish market.

"However, we are very focused now on growing our business in the UK. Because local origin is an important consideration for many UK retail buyers, we have decided to enter a joint venture arrangement with an existing Liverpool-based mushroom business and to invest a further €5m in building another new state of the art facility there similar to what we have here in Carlow," explains Leslie.

It's been an exciting business journey for Codd Mushrooms. Fresh from being a finalist in this year's EY Entrepreneur of the Year Programme, Leslie Codd has much to be proud off. Having gone directly from school into working for himself, both he and Raymond have managed to develop a successful and sustainable Irish food business that continues to grow and expand. His dream now is to see the company grow its turnover to €50m and its employee numbers to more than 500 for 2020. Based on his ambition, management capability and achievements to date, I have no doubt but that he will make this a reality also.

The story of Codd Mushrooms also goes to demonstrate just how important our indigenous Irish businesses are to the national economy as well as to the many local communities who rely on them for much needed employment. Here's to Leslie Codd and to the many more unsung heroes of the Irish SME sector.

For further information: www.coddmushrooms.ie

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