Tuesday 18 September 2018

Garlic-bulb moment: bright idea turns farm into country's largest supplier

It took years of hard work, but Drummond House has put itself on the Irish foodie map

Drummond House farm in Baltray, Co Louth where Marita and Peter Collier have built up their successful garlic-farming business. Photo: David Conachy
Drummond House farm in Baltray, Co Louth where Marita and Peter Collier have built up their successful garlic-farming business. Photo: David Conachy

John Cradden

It's a small family farm in Baltray, Co Louth, with a history dating back 150 years, but since 2012 Drummond House has managed to build a strong niche as a local grower of new varieties of a tricky crop that you would normally associate with sunny Mediterranean climates.

Their path to becoming Ireland's largest garlic suppliers was forged by years of research and hard graft along with generous help and support from a number of sources. But they've also built a strong and loyal brand following for its premium garlic products by harnessing the natural interest that people had in what they were doing.

Indeed, Marita Collier is a born storyteller, talking about she and her husband Peter have learnt in the course of building their thoroughly modern farm. Becoming garlic growers was the ultimate answer to the question of what do with a 100-acre farm that Peter inherited in the late 1990s but only took over in 2008.

"It was very dilapidated," says Marita. "There was an existing tenant farmer just doing potatoes and corn in rotation, and Peter and I really wanted to clean up the farm and bring it back to the glory that it was."

However, after having to pay a huge €300,000 inheritance tax bill, they had little capital left to invest in the farm and little willingness to get into big debt. Renting it out would have brought an annual income of just €13,000, and selling off parts of it wasn't an option either. Peter "is a firm believer in being a custodian, minding what you have, improving what you have, but making a living as well", says Marita.

So they gravitated to the idea of seeking out new type of crops they could grow - and which would grow well.

As Marita tells it, they "saw the light" during a family trip high up along the Ganges River in India. During a stop in Ranikhet, a place some 18,000 feet above sea level, they passed an organic farm that looked to be growing scallions but which turned out to be Himalayan garlic.

"I was just mesmerised because, in my mind, garlic grew in a Mediterranean climate or China or Argentina. It didn't grow in damp, wet, heavy soils, but this place actually wasn't like that. The farmer explained to me that the melting water that was dripping down from the higher Himalayans becomes a very, very light trickle and it continues on its way. So nothing ever gets bogged in water."

This got them thinking. The soil on Collier's farm has a sandy quality and is situated on top of a quarry, which means naturally good drainage. "Even if there is a bad summer and it hasn't stopped raining you can still get into our field with a tractor," says Marita.

Back home, Marita did a bit of research and quickly found that there was no-one growing garlic here on a commercial scale. What they also discovered was that the garlic plants from the Mediterranean didn't grow well, but that the stronger variety of garlic from Eastern Europe - which needs to live in temperatures of five degrees or below for about eight weeks of the year - certainly did.

They planted about two acres in 2013 and, while they lost most of the crop due to lack of irrigation, they were amazed when they taste-tested what was left. "It's not garlic like I've ever tasted," said Marita. "It was like a hot chilli pepper. What I didn't understand is that's how garlic is meant to be; it's meant to have a burn, it's meant to have heat and fire."

So they went full scale for the following year, planting five acres, though not before investing in a proper irrigation system.

Marita admits that the couple were a bit naive about how labour-intensive planting and harvesting garlic would be, particularly with practically no machinery. "We had to go out with a pole made with the handle of a sweeping brush, make a hole, and drop in the cloves. I would come along behind my husband with the rake to rake it over. We didn't even own a tractor. We had to get them out with pitchforks and actually pole fork it out, and then fill buckets and literally just walk with buckets around the field."

But with the helping hands of family and friends during harvest periods; and moral support and advice from agencies such as Teagasc, An Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture (which included obtaining grant supports towards the cost of their irrigation system and new machinery), their persistence and hard work has been rewarded.

Drummond House Garlic can today be found in selected artisan food stores, craft butchers and several Dunnes Stores branches. It is the sole supplier of garlic to the Merrion Hotel and several top chefs, including JP McMahon of Aniar, Wade Murphy, Alberto Rossi of the Intercontinental Hotel, Mike Tweedie of Adare Manor and Neven Maguire.

It has won several awards, including the Euro-Toques award 2017 (for excellence in garlic production and flavour) and Georgina Campbell awards for 2017 and 2018.

Marita says she was wary of working with multiples based on hearing negative experiences from other growers, but she is delighted with how their relationship with Dunnes Stores has worked out. "They said to me: 'It's your brand. We're not here saying you're growing for Dunnes; you're growing for Drummond House because we have no knowledge. We've never had a garlic grower'."

Marita insisted on designing the packaging, as she was keen for her customers to "get to know" the growers. "People like to know what they're getting and what you're selling and they appreciate that they can look into your life and they feel that they know you," she says.

Besides introducing the new varieties (labelled according to their strength and flavour) and a new type of product called garlic scapes (the flower buds of the garlic plant) to the Irish market, Drummond House has pioneered the idea of selling packets of loose cloves, which have proved a big hit, particularly with those who like garlic but wouldn't use a whole bulb. Given all this, it's no surprise to hear that Drummond House garlic is more expensive than the cheap, imported varieties we are used to, at €3.50 for a single packet of Redneck, Mikulov, Bohemian Rose, Red Czech or Elephant Garlic. But it seems Dunnes Stores customers can't get enough of them, and Marita says she is regularly swamped with emails asking when the product will be in season again.

The top chefs who quickly became keen customers of Drummond House garlic also encouraged them to do trial runs of asparagus, as it turned out they had the right kind of sandy soil for these plants to thrive. So with the help and support of top agronomist John Hogan at Teagasc, the farm has produced its first official crop of this seasonal vegetable delicacy.

Right now, they are working on increasing their plot sizes for garlic, "because we have a garlic planter, we have a garlic harvester and we have a garlic cloves packer, so happy days", said Marita. "We can be very efficient without being labour-intensive."

As well as that, they are working on new products, including a variety of black garlic and a garlic scape pesto. They are also doing some R&D work with a beekeeper to develop a honey-infused garlic product, and with a local brewing company to develop a cider flavoured with garlic. "I know it sounds disgusting but we're having a bit of fun with this. The couple of samples we've done have blown people away with the taste factor."

The story of Drummond House has also interested other growers, several of whom have asked Marita for advice. The truth is that the couple's success has been hard-won, with lots of mistakes and lessons learnt, and while Marita clearly wouldn't have had it any other way, her advice is that it's not a quick turnaround.

"If you're looking for a quick fix in 12 months or 24 months and hopefully clear debt, I can tell you now, categorically, it won't happen."

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