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