IT’S pruning season now in County Armagh’s famous orchards and one man who likes to get started early is Sammy MacNeice - a fourth generation apple grower. If anyone knows about growing apples and being a caretaker of the land it’s this man.
This year’s crop has been forfeited to the winter and to storage. What happens now in the orchards is the next stage of apple growing which is pruning. Some farmers like to leave it until the apples have fallen but for Sammy it’s better this essential work gets started as soon as possible.
It’s in these orchards where apples are grown and then pressed to make Mac Ivors Cider Co’s three Irish craft cider varieties. It’s also where apples are processed and then supplied to bakeries the length and breadth of Ireland and England.
Sammy grew up on a farm and when he left school as a young teenager he knew he was destined to work on the farm.
“I left school when I was 14 years old,” he recalls. “I was third eldest in the line in the family so I was the one earmarked to come into the farm to work. My father always kept a couple of men working on the farm so I was launched as a raw recruit at the age of 14.
“We had cattle and fruit such as strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants but apples were the core business.
“My dad died when I was 20 years old. The onus of running the farm was thrown onto my shoulders. I began looking at things in a different light. It was about mixed farms surviving. This was the case all over Ireland. My brother Joe came into the business and it was in 1970 that we decided to plant all the land in orchards so we focused exclusively on growing fruit - fruit for fresh markets, processing and also canning.
“So we set up a canning factory. Most bakeries in Ireland, at that time, were using fresh apple so they changed to convenience fruit so canning was a good move for us. A few years after that we moved to processing fruit for pie filling. Canning had lost favour because cans had to be disposed off. They didn’t suit a lot of bakeries so we started to do products which were ready made. These took the form of plastic and stainless steel containers which held one tonne of apples so the bigger bakeries would have taken those. This meant everything was ready to deposit into the tart.
“That was the big move from the 1980s and 1990s and is still the most popular way to process and preserve apple today.”
According to Sammy not much has changed in that respect in the last 20 or so years.
“The pie filling was the way forward for us then and it still is today. What bakeries all across the country got was a ready made product so it was very easy for them to fill pies. The demand was high and it continues to be high. We now supply to bakeries all over Ireland, we supply to wholesalers and we supply bakeries in England.
“From the early days apples were packed and put to the market but systems changed and processing became more important. Around 75 per cent of the total apple crop is now used for processing and the remaining 25 per cent would go to the fresh market. Convenience foods have made all the difference. Very few people bake any more so there was a huge shift towards ready made tarts.”
But one thing which has remained consistent for Sammy’s processing business is the use of the natural product and the PGI Protected Bramley Apple.
“PGI means it has identified the Bramley Apple as a product of the Archdiocese of Armagh. It puts the Bramley on a pedestal and gives it a firm standing in the fruit business. This is a product produced in this area. It has characteristics of County Armagh. Our growing season is a lot longer. We have low temperatures and soil conditions are heavy so we grow the fruit here on clay, on the drumlins and hills. We get red colour into the normally green Bramley Apple. Some have a red cheek but it’s a good sign of the quality of that fruit.
“We have all concentrated on the Bramley Apple but we were not in a climate that was conducive to growing dessert fruit. But there are some dessert varieties that will grow very well in County Armagh. The key thing is that we don’t have enough of them to supply supermarkets. They need a supply throughout the year. We don’t have that as yet.”
It was in 2001 when Sammy’s son Greg returned home to get involved in the business again but this time it was to add another dimension by creating his own Irish cider production company.
“Greg came into the business initially as MacNeice Fruit,” Sammy explains. “At that point we were still processing and canning both apples and rhubarb and fruit mince for the Christmas market. We were always toying with the idea of moving into a different area.
“Cider was always on the agenda because of my brother Paedar’s experimentation, so Greg took that on. Peadar was a teacher. He was a poet and he did a lot of things. He was always giving us ideas. He was one of the ones who would have pushed on the apple juice and cider but it was Joe and I who were less keen.
“Greg had gone through college then went abroad and worked in Europe on different sales jobs and after working in Europe he joined a company in Dublin doing marketing.
“He came home one day and told me he had decided to pack it up and he said he wanted to work in the family business again. I was delighted. After a few years settling in, he set up the cider business to run in conjunction with the other processing that we had on board at the time.
“When Greg started to look at cider making he went to do a course as a cider maker in England. He had a great knowledge of what he was doing before he embarked on his journey. Cider making is an art. You have to get your head around it. He could concentrate on the new business. It was an add on to what we already had.
“And when he got his teeth into it he got very interested in cider making. The blending of cider is the big thing. You have to know what they are doing. You need to know the flavours and the tastes. It’s not easy to get consistency of taste and flavour.
“And of course with this came another stage of progression. We began planting more cider apples for cider production. While the Bramley is high in malic acid it does not compare to a cider apple for depth of flavour.
“The cider apple is a special variety of apple. It’s closer to a wild crab apple than to commercial varieties that would be commonly used. There are a lot of varieties of cider apples and we will be planting a mixture of those in the new 10 acres of orchard.
“It takes time, patience and investment to nurture these orchards. Our new orchard should be planted by the end of this winter. How quickly it bears fruit depends on the root stock you use.
“There are a number of root stocks. Some are vigorous and some are not but the root stock has a bearing. If you use a weak root stock you will get an apple maybe in three years but the tree would not have formed properly. It’s about seven years before you get a reasonably good crop. It’s a slow return.
“As an investment, if you weren’t in the business you would walk away. People want a return a lot quicker.”
So as the fruit processing business continues to grow in Ireland so too does Mac Ivors Cider Co. What started out as an experiment with Granny Mac Ivors’s old demijohns has now developed into a leading Irish craft cider maker - the products of which are distributed through over 1,000 outlets in Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark and Italy. And with growth and ambition firmly fixed in Greg’s mind, Mac Ivors Cider Co. continues to operate side by side with the family’s fruit processing business.
And so what does the future hold for Sammy? Well, he said: “I should be retired but I have such an interest in the business. Greg would be very clued into running the apple growing side of the business that I manage.
“I have no fear. If I wasn’t here tomorrow he could carry on.”