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Friday 16 November 2018

How this farm family started producing gluten-free oats

'It's ensuring that this family farm stays afloat into the future'

The Scully clan (l-r) Kevin, Roisin, Aoife, Jenny (front), Niamh and Sadbh
The Scully clan (l-r) Kevin, Roisin, Aoife, Jenny (front), Niamh and Sadbh
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

One morning while Kevin Scully was feeding the cattle with his youngest daughter, Niamh, she asked what the cattle were eating.

Kevin told her it was a kind of porridge. Niamh queried if humans could eat it and it planted an idea in Kevin's head about processing his own oats. The idea was explored further and six months ago he made it a reality when Merrymill Organic Gluten Free Oats were launched on the market.

"We carry out the whole process from start to finish on site," says Kevin from Merrymount, Vicarstown, Co Laois who has been farming organically for the past 12 years.

Registered with IOFGA, the beef and tillage farmer, has been sending organic oats to Flahavan's to be milled for porridge for the last number of years.

"After doing market research we discovered the rising number of people diagnosed with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. Two members of our extended family have been diagnosed with coeliac disease in recent years - we wanted to provide a product that everyone could enjoy," says Kevin.

Oats are a naturally gluten-free grain. However, during processing they can become cross contaminated with grains such as wheat that do contain gluten, so traceability to keep it gluten free is essential.

Merrymill is a family operated business with Kevin's wife Jenny running the administration side, and his four daughters all playing valuable roles in getting the business up and running and assist with getting orders out on time.

"Like most small businesses you rely a lot on family or free labour as otherwise it would not be feasible.

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"We are small, but that is also a positive thing as we are trying to get market share and in order to do that we must preserve the quality and integrity of the product. All of our oats are milled by hand and it is a labour intensive process. There is no tradition in Ireland any more of micro-milling so I had to import equipment such as a de-huller, de-stoner, aspirator to remove dust and dirt, a pre-cleaner, gravity de-separator, flake machine and a stone mill.

"There was definitely some teething problems and still are, but we are working our way through it," he says.

At full capacity, the stone mill can produce 250kg an hour. Compared to the 25-30 tonnes industrial millers can process in the same time, it certainly makes Merrymill an artisan product.

This year all of the oats grown on the farm will be dried, kept in a purpose-built storage area and stone milled as required. Merrymill also produce an Organic Gluten Free Oat Flour which is currently selling well. The products are available online, in stores in Laois, Kildare, Dublin, Cork and Kerry as well as a range of outlets locally. "I just wanted to add some value to what I was producing," says Kevin.

"We will always be a small family run business, but the key to our success to date is that we are supplying a product that no-one else here is producing and we are displacing imports which is a win-win situation.

"More farmers need to look around at what they are doing and see if they can supply different markets.

"I want maximum returns for producing good quality food and I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

"In fact, it is ensuring that this family farm stays afloat into the future," adds Kevin.

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