Flour power - meet the cereal growers driving a €25m flour mill project

Cereal growers Andrew and Ray Kavanagh are leading a €25m project that will deliver the first new flour mill to open in this country since the 1970s

Andrew and Raymond Kavanagh pictured beside a grain store and dryer at the proposed location of the new flour mill in Ballycarney, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Browne
Andrew and Raymond Kavanagh pictured beside a grain store and dryer at the proposed location of the new flour mill in Ballycarney, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Browne
An architect's model of the Slaney Flour plant

Alex Meehan

Is there a food stuff more basic to human consumption than bread? If so it's hard to think of it, and yet Ireland as a nation imports an astonishing 80 per cent of the flour used to bake bread here each year.

That's a figure that one family of tillage farmers in Wexford is hoping to change. Andrew and Ray Kavanagh are based in Ballycarney, Enniscorthy, where their family has farmed around 500 acres on the banks of the river Slaney for many years.

The brothers grow winter wheat, winter barley, winter malting barley and spring malting barley but the newest component to their business is a plan to establish the first new flour mill to open in Ireland in nearly 50 years.

"The last one opened in the 1970s and it's difficult to say why exactly it's been so long. I'd say the main reason is that we have so much imported flour coming into the country from the UK and nobody has done the work to get the correct strain of wheat up and running here," says Andrew Kavanagh.

An architect's model of the Slaney Flour plant
An architect's model of the Slaney Flour plant

"A few people have looked into it and while there are mills producing bagged flour for the consumer market, there isn't really anyone doing mass flour production for bakeries."

He says the bulk of the flour used in Ireland is being brought in from the UK where specialist strains are grown and blended with French and Canadian wheat. This works because of economies of scale in place in the UK.

"The bakeries here are looking for bread flour and flour suitable for baking pizzas. You need a good grist blended from different types of wheat. This is the major challenge we face - developing the right blends and making sure our flour is 100 per cent consistent," he says.

"Technology has a huge role to play in today's milling - all the mills in the UK are bang up to date in terms of technology and can guarantee consistency. That's what the customer wants - the same product every single time so that their bread products are the same."

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The Kavanaghs' mill project has been underway for some time but the changing nature of its scope has meant that it's required rethinking at several stages. Initial plans received full planning permission 12 months ago but changes to the scope of the development required the brothers to go back and seek revised planning permission later, a process that ended when this was granted for the second time in August 2018.

Meanwhile, the Kavanaghs have been working with consultants PWC to tighten up their business plan and put them in touch with potential investors for the project.

Brexit

"PWC has been working away in the background while our civil engineers Malone O'Regan have also been researching suppliers of the latest generation of mill equipment. From the time we break ground on the build, we think it will take around 16 months until we're grinding flour," says Kavanagh.

"We're still waiting on a number of factors to fall into place to get things started, and it would be foolish not to count Brexit into our plans. If that goes the way it's looking like it's going to go, there's going to be tariffs and it seems likely that flour won't be coming into Ireland as freely as it is today."

While Kavanagh recognises that the Ballycarney mill project is ambitious - he estimates the total cost at around €25 million- he says there is a lot of goodwill for the mill in the market.

"There is an opportunity here and great return on investment for people who back it. We've had a lot of interest in partnering with us, including from other millers on the continent.

"We've taken some trips to Germany which were very interesting. We seem to grind a lot finer here than they do there and they use different strains of flours," says Kavanagh.

"But the consumer wants a lot of variety in their bread products, we're eating a lot more croissants and cakes and bread rolls than we were in the past, and there's a market there to supply the flour for those."

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