'We had to make some changes if the farm was going to survive'
We've always been known for our love of potatoes, and Maria Flynn, who recently brought a different variety of spud to menus across the country, says it's "bringing back that good, old-fashioned potato taste".
Maria, who is not from a farming background and worked most of her professional life in financial services, found herself part of a large tillage operation when she married David, a farmer from Co Louth.
Maria and David were working 550 acres, most of which they were renting, on which they grew 400-450 acres of corn and 150 acres of Rooster potatoes.
"It was what David's father had done and it worked very well for him so we were going to continue the cycle, but the cycle changed shortly after David took over," explains Maria. Having "an outsider's perspective" and a finance background, she couldn't see how the farm would make money; she knew that they had to make a change if the farm was going to survive.
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"I had been speaking to a local veg grower and he asked me if I had ever thought of growing different types of potatoes for chefs. I had eaten purple potatoes years ago while in London and this came back to me," says Maria.
"I knew I had to do something that wouldn't cost us any money, and potatoes were what we had been doing, so we had the infrastructure there."
They bought some seed for purple potatoes (Violetta) and ended up growing nine tonnes the first year; Maria then needed to find a market for her new produce.
"I'd never used social media at this point, but I managed to drum up a bit of interest from chefs," she says.
Purple potatoes, which have a higher yield than regular potatoes, also have a significantly higher nutritional profile: they are packed full of antioxidants and disease-fighting phytonutrients, as well as various vitamins and minerals. They have also been proven to help reduce blood pressure.
Five years on, the business has gone from strength to strength. Now branded Ballymakenny Farm, Maria works with four wholesalers and supplies her potatoes to a number of Micheli-starred restaurants.
David says they feel like they now get respect for the work they do, something they did not get when they grew Roosters for retail.
Along with the purple Violetta, Ballymakenny Farm also grows specialty and heritage potato varieties such as Red Emily, Yukon Gold, Pink Fir Apple, Mayan Rose, Mayan Gold and Mayan Twilight.
They also occasionally grow Kalettes - a hybrid between a purple Brussels sprout and kale which is always well received.
This year Ballymakenny Farm has produced 12 acres of long-stem broccoli and is experimenting with sweet-stem cauliflower.
"By growing something different you're forging your path and learning from your mistakes," adds Maria.
One thing that Maria is adamant about is that their potatoes are seasonal.
"We don't want to keep them in storage, the sugars change, they aren't as good for cooking and they degrade so we have made the decision that they are available for six months of the year and then that's it," she says.
The plan for Ballymakenny Farm is not to expand, but to complement what they already do.
"It's a very exciting time," says Maria. "I have just been given an innovation grant from Enterprise Ireland and am going to be working with GMIT to develop a purple potato salad.
"We are just about to start the recipe development stage."
David adds: "We're lucky to have this little business to keep our hands dirty. We're enjoying what we do."
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