Monday 16 December 2019

The inspiring Monaghan duck farm now selling to the Chinese

Silver Hill Farm produces and prepares 60,000 ducks every week, in a 'beak-to-tail' operation

Duck and Cover: Stuart Steele and Sean Gallagher at Silver Hill Farm, Co. Monaghan, from where they export all over the world. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Duck and Cover: Stuart Steele and Sean Gallagher at Silver Hill Farm, Co. Monaghan, from where they export all over the world. Photo: Gerry Mooney

IT'S a beautiful sunny morning when I arrive to the front gate of Silver Hill Farm, just outside the picturesque village of Emyvale, in County Monaghan.

Founded over 50 years ago by Ronnie and Lyla Steele, the business has become a global leader in the production and processing of duck meat and duck related products. But today I have come to meet with the couple's son - Stuart - who is now the company's managing director.

Before I get past the entrance to the facility, however, I am greeted by a member of the company's health and safety team who pleasantly but firmly, invites me to step out of my car and dip my footwear into one of the disinfectant filled foot baths provided. Next, she hands me a detailed questionnaire to complete which enquires about my general health and whether or not I have recently visited other poultry farms.

It's all part of their stringent procedures to ensure that I do not pose a risk to the hygiene standards of the factory. After all, this is one of Ireland's most prominent and distinguished food processing facilities. And it's a reputation they clearly take seriously.

"We are essentially a family owned and managed duck company," explains Stuart. "Everything we do here is fully integrated, owned and controlled by the business. That includes all aspects of the business right from initial breeding, egg production and hatching right up to final processing and cooking," he adds.

Over the years, the company has developed a market for every part of the duck so that there is no waste generated. The duck meat is sold in various cuts, both raw and cooked. The livers are exported for pate while the feet and tongues are sold to the Asian market as a delicacy. And they have even built their own feather plant where duck feathers and down are made into high quality pillows and duvets and sold to the residential and hotel sectors.

"We literally use every part of the duck except the quack," exclaims Stuart. "And recently, we've even made that into a ring tone for mobile phones," he adds.

Silver Hill Farm supplies many of the large retail stores throughout Ireland and has also built up a successful trade business servicing the food service sector as well as many of the country's leading restaurants and hotels.

They are also hugely successful in export markets including the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark as well as in China, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

"Our success can largely be put down to the quality of our Peking breed of duck which we have developed over the years. Importantly for us, it's our own breed and is unique to Silver Hill Farm," he explains. "Our focus on developing our own breed has enabled us to produce duck meat which is renowned within the food industry for being flavoursome, succulent, tender and consistent in its quality. And for us, it's all about quality and consistency" insists Stuart.

"The best way to understand the quality of what we do is to let you taste it for yourself," proclaims Stuart as he shows me the dedicated cooking area where residence chef and new product development manager, Jenny Eustace, has lined up somewhat of a duck feast for me.

There are plates filled with all sorts of cuts and flavours from duck wings in Chinese plum sauce, to duck sausages, shredded duck in Hoi Sin sauce with spring onion and cucumber accompaniments as well as aromatic duck and roasted duck in honey glaze and orange sauce.

"This is a real favourite among duck lovers," explains Stuart as he passes me a plate with one of the company's signature products - confit of duck leg.

"It's one of the most common ways of cooking duck legs," he goes on to explain. "The legs are coated in duck fat with added spices and flavours for up to four hours. All our spices and sauces are made by us here in the factory using natural ingredients that are made free from additives and preservatives of any type," he tells me proudly.

The business was originally set up in 1962 by Stuart's parents, Ronnie and Lyla Steele. Ronnie was from the UK while Lyla grew up in nearby Co Cavan. Ronnie had a background in chicken farming and so wanted to start a chicken farm. Lyla, on the other hand, had an interest in getting into the turkey business.

"Like all good marriages they compromised and decided to go into the duck business," says Stuart laughing.

Their initial idea was to start a hatchery where they would sell day-old duck chicks to local farmers who would grow and sell them on themselves. However, they soon found that it was hard to get paid for produce and decided, instead to concentrate on rearing the ducks themselves.

They soon began supplying their ducks to local hotels and restaurants and quickly realised that there was a growing demand for duck that came pre-prepared for cooking. They also discovered that there were better margins to be had if they undertook this value-added process themselves.

Stuart takes me to a small shed in the corner of the current site and explains that this is where it all started. He recalls how his parents would rear the ducks in one half of the shed while carrying out the processing and packaging in the other. It is in stark contrast to today's modern production plant which now spans several acres.

Stuart joined the business after finishing school. Starting at the bottom, he worked his way up, spending time learning each aspect of the business. He remembers too that when he joined, the business was processing about 6,000 ducks each week. Today, it produces to a staggering 60,000 ducks each week. In addition to supplying the Irish market, the company now exports over 85pc of all the ducks they produce. It really is hard to comprehend the sheer scale and enormity of the company's operation.

Stuart takes me around the site as he explains the various stages in the business.

Firstly, the eggs are incubated on the family's own farm until they hatch in a process that takes about one month. Once hatched, these day-old chicks are transported to independent grower farms around the area where they will be reared for the next seven weeks until ready for processing.

During this time they are fed only on natural feedstuffs which have been formulated by the company and consisting largely of wheat and soya.

"Great care is taken of the birds both when they are on the farms and while they are being transported. We make sure that they experience as little stress as possible as this can adversely affect their growth. In addition, the wellness of the ducks is important to use," explains Stuart, pointing to a charter document on the welfare of birds.

Once back in the plant, the final processing begins. The birds are largely plucked by hand to ensure that there are no blemishes on the skin. And once cooked they are air-chilled and packed for dispatch.

"We do not add any water to our ducks, in order to add weight, like some producers do. When we sell duck, we sell duck. Not water," insists Stuart.

"Breaking into the Chinese market was a major game changer for us," Stuart explains. "They have a long tradition of eating duck and want high quality duck that is rich in flavour. That's why we developed our own special breed of duck which could not easily be replicated by our competitors. That way we can offer a premium quality product while at the same time insulating our need to continuously have to compete on price. In China, our duck is regularly referred to by locals as the 'mother of all ducks'," he adds proudly.

Although a family-run business, Stuart is quick to acknowledge the importance and contribution of the company's staff, 80pc of whom have been with the business for more than 10 years.

"They really are the glue that holds the whole business together," he insists.

Looking to the future, Stuart is focused on doubling the size of the business over the next five years. He also sees job numbers in the business growing from 160 now to over 250 in that period. Creating and sustaining local employment is important to him.

"We are continuously expanding both our range of products and have established a new product development department and a show kitchen where we work with leading chefs and retailer buyers to come up with new recipes and new flavour combinations. We are also continuing to expand our reach into both the retail and food service markets here in Ireland. And internationally, we are continuing to break into new territories, most recently Spain and Iceland," he explains.

Outside of the goals for the company, Stuart and his family are committed to giving back to their local community. They recently opened a farm shop close to the factory where they stock, not only their own products but also those of other local growers and producers.

In addition, they provide land for use as allotments, at a peppercorn rent, to the local community as well as paying for a horticulturalist to visit local schools to teach young children how to grow their own fruit and vegetables.

The story of Silver Hill Farm is truly inspiring. It started over 50 years ago when a newly married couple decided to start their own small farm enterprise.

Over the intervening years that business has grown into a thriving international company that exports produce all over the world.

Through careful management and an innovative approach to maximising output and eliminating waste, they have managed to find methods and markets that use every single part of the ducks they produce.

Their clear and unwavering commitment to quality has enabled them to become global leaders in their sector - and it's utterly delicious

Stuart's advice for other businesses 

Don't be afraid of change

"Things are forever changing in business and in the market so make sure you know your market, your customers and your production processes. Be careful not to be distracted things over which you have little or no control - worry instead, about the micro issues, the things in your business over which you do have control."

Don't take quality for granted

"Don't take the issue of quality for granted. It is something you have to work at every day in your business. Similarly, every person on your team has to have the same level of commitment to producing consistent quality. This is something that can protect and insulate your business against price-only battles."

Don't be afraid to fail, but learn from it if you do

"Take all the advice you can get from entrepreneurs, experts and government agencies such as Enterprise Ireland. But believe in your own vision and your own ability to make your vision a reality. And if things don't work out quite as planned, learn the lessons and quickly move on."

Business Masters

Company name: Silver Hill Farm

Business: Duck farming

Set up: 1962

Founder(s): Ronnie and Lyla Steele

Turnover: €30m plus

Employees: 160

Location: Emyvale, Co Monaghan

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