The kings of the salad bar
Stephen Mc Cormack tells Sean Gallagher how a foodie revolution drove growth of their horticultural business
In recent years, the growing trend to eat healthily has led retail stores and restaurants everywhere to offer more choice and versatility when it comes to healthy food options. In turn, this has led to an increased demand for freshly grown greens and vegetables - welcome news for farmers and those involved in growing and processing such crops.
To learn more about what's going on in the sector, I headed off last week to visit one of Ireland's best known producers, Stephen Mc Cormack, managing director of Mc Cormack Family Farms. Set up by his father Edward in 1984, and located in Kiltale, Co Meath, the business now employs 120 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €16m.
"We currently farm over 600 acres of land where we produce mostly baby spinach, wild rocket, mixed salad leaves, baby kale and pakchoi," Stephen explains as we jump into his jeep for a tour of the fields. "In addition, we also grow a wide range of herbs - basil, coriander, parsley and rosemary. Some 60pc of our business comes from supplying fruit and veg wholesalers, who in turn supply small shops, restaurants and hotels while the remaining 40pc comes from the retail sector - such as Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Aldi, Lidl, SuperValu and Spar," he adds.
As we turn into the first 20-acre field I am immediately struck by the sight of row after row of baby spinach stretching out as far as I can see. It's an astonishing picture with every row meticulously set out and uniformly straight. For a moment, I reflect on how many of us, when we walk down the aisle of our local supermarket and toss a few bags of salad leaves into our shopping trolleys, ever stop to think about just how much work goes into producing it.
"Crops are typically grown in fields of between 20 and 40 acres and take about six weeks from sowing to harvesting," he says.
Sowing starts in February of each year and continues right up until mid-September when the last crops go into the ground. Before sowing can happen though, the fields must first be ploughed and rotivated to ensure that the soil is ready for what is called 'bed forming'. Once sown, fertilisers are applied, such as seaweed, which provides vital nutrients to the crops and also protects them against pests or diseases. These days, harvesting is carried out using specialised cutting equipment after which the leaves are boxed in the field. Here each box is given an individual sticker with the date of sowing, the field number in which it was grown and the date of harvesting - all part of the traceability process.
"Our target is to achieve a yield of 3kg per sqm," explains Stephen. "Less than 2kgs per sqm and we don't make any money," he stresses.
I am amazed to hear that on an average day, the company can harvest as much as 15 tonnes of salad leaves. As we arrive at the factory, trailers are ferrying the boxes of leaves in from the fields. Here they are sorted and graded before being packed into plastic bags and trays, ready for dispatch to their retail and wholesale customers.
"Everything we supply is unwashed - we don't use any nasty chemicals or washing agents," says Stephen. "And leaving them unwashed doubles their shelf life from four to eight days, which is good for retailers and consumers."
Having grown up on a small family farm, Stephens's father Edward decided that he wanted to combine his love for the land with his love of selling. After attending nearby Warrenstown Agricultural and Horticultural College, his dream came true when he got a job with the college selling all their produce at Dublin's Smithfield Market. He continued in this role for the next 30 years, during which time he built up a strong relationship with many of the city's best known buyers. By 1984, he knew he wanted to branch out on his own and on a neighbour's one-acre garden he began growing vegetables and lettuce in small quantities, which he sold to contacts in the restaurant business. Stephen later followed his father's footsteps, when he too studied in Warrenstown College, graduating with a degree in horticulture. By 1991, he had joined his father in the business on a full-time basis.
"It was a good combination," Stephen says. "I looked after the growing side of the business while Edward concentred on sales."
By 2000, the pair had over 100 acres rented on which they were growing salad leaves as well as traditional vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and turnips.
"One day we were unloading a delivery of eight-stone bags of vegetables from the van to one of our customers, when they lifted up a small 50gm bag of herbs and remarked that they'd paid £1 for that and only £2 for our 8st bag. That really got us thinking," he explains.
Researching the market they discovered that most of the herbs and baby leaves sold in Ireland were in fact imported from mainland Europe. Convinced that they were capable of producing these herbs themselves, the pair made a strategic decision to drop vegetable growing altogether and focus their efforts instead on growing fresh herbs and baby leaf crops.
"At that time Ireland was beginning to experience a food revolution with chefs everywhere looking for new culinary lines to add to their menus. Our timing was just right," he says.
They continued to supply their produce solely through wholesalers at the Smithfield Markets, until 2007 when they landed their first retail customers, Dunnes Stores and Superquinn - something that became a real turning point for the business.
"The following year, the restaurant and food service side of the business, which had been doing well up to then, began to fall sharply," explains Stephen. "In the downturn, people just didn't have the money to eat out as much as they had been."
Recognising that more and more people were beginning to cook and entertain in their own homes, the pair decided to focus more on the retail side of their business - and soon landed contracts to supply Lidl and Tesco.
"Supplying large retail stores bring its own challenges," admits Stephen. "This is because they have incredibly high standards. However, it really helped us raise our game and today we are BRC, Globalgapp and Bord Bia approved."
In 2014, the juicing revolution took off and people began recognising the high nutritional value of green-leaved produce. Around that time, salads moved from being seen as some sort of side-dressing to becoming a healthy meal option in their own right - all of which helped increase the demand for their produce.
"We're definitely seeing more confidence in the market at the moment and the public are beginning to eat out again. When it comes to their shopping, they are now also increasingly choosing healthier food options in the form of more greens and herbs, all of which is good for us," says Stephen.
"Looking to the future, we want to continue to grow the business as well as diversifying into new product ranges. The market is always changing and our job is to keep up with that change," he adds positively.
Having gone from a neighbour's garden 30 years ago to now farming 600 acres of land and employing 120 staff, Stephen and his father Edward have demonstrated just what can be achieved through a combination of hard work, innovation and a commitment to quality. Having spent the day with them, it's clear they have no intention of slowing down anytime soon either.
For further information, visit www.mccormackfarms.ie
Sunday Indo Business