Outstanding producers win M&S ‘Farming for the Future’ awards

Students from CAFRE Greenmount accepting their award from Peter Kennedy, M&S Agriculture Manager
Students from CAFRE Greenmount accepting their award from Peter Kennedy, M&S Agriculture Manager

Local producers for Marks & Spencer have been rewarded for their excellence in farming at a M&S ‘Farming for the Future’ Awards presentation, which took place at the Balmoral Show.

The winners were:

Outstanding Producer Award – David Irwin, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim

Innovation Award – Philip Meade, Co. Meath

Young Producer Award – Andrew Shanks, Co. Monaghan

Contribution to Rural Communities Award (Prince’s Countryside Fund) – John Dobson, Waringstown, Co. Armagh

David Irwin from Ballymoney, Co. Antrim scooped the Outstanding Producer Award which champions forward-thinking individuals whose technical ability or business aptitude promises to make a positive impact on their sector.

David farms in partnership with his mother and father, milking 230 pedigree Holstein Friesian cows. The Urbal Herd supplies M&S stores across Ireland with fresh milk through Lacpatrick Dairies and the family is committed to continually improving its business.

“We just try and do things as well as we can,” says David. “We’re proud to have significantly reduced antibiotic usage on the farm in recent years. Regular mobility scoring helps us to ensure cows’ feet are looked after and we’ve now invested in concrete grooving throughout the yards to make the yards easier for the cows to walk on. It’s a case of moving forward and constantly tweaking and improving our protocols to hopefully be the best that we can be.”

Cow welfare is a priority on the farm, and the team’s attention to detail in this area led to Nick Bell MRCVS, who oversees cow health for the M&S dairy farmers, putting the farm forward for this award.

Nick comments: “David leads a young and disciplined team where every aspect of herd management is meticulously thought about and implemented to high standards. He researches new ideas thoroughly and consults widely with his advisors and this has led him to achieve some of the best welfare outcomes within the M&S pool. He is very much aligned with what the M&S Health and Welfare scheme is about and embraces the standards with positivity and enthusiasm.”

Philip Meade from Co. Tyrone scooped the Innovation Award which recognises producers who are pushing the boundaries in their sector.

The Meade family first started selling potatoes in local towns in the Co. Meath area in 1977. The Meade Potato Company now employs approximately 240 people, and Philip, along with his father, Philip, brother Patrick and sister Eleanor, now oversee the production of a range of potatoes and fresh vegetables and are suppliers to M&S via Avondale Foods in Lurgan.

Philip is committed to running a business that is as efficient and sustainable as possible and this has led the Meade Potato Company to roll out several innovative business initiatives.

In order to minimise the company’s environmental impact, Philip has worked with Farm Managers to reduce the company’s use of fungicides by 24%, insecticides by 33%, and increase the use of organic fertilisers (including seaweed) to feed crops.

To extract the full value from their potato crop, Philip also runs a Zero Food Waste policy. Any potatoes that don’t meet customer specification are donated to local food banks or sold for stock feed, potato waste is fed to cattle and starch is extracted from peelings so that it can be sold into the ingredients market.

To improve the sustainability of manufacturing, Philp has overseen a 30% reduction in product packaging waste, and reduced plastic usage by at least 29%.

“Efficiency is the basis of all profitable, sustainable businesses and innovation is at the heart of efficiency,” says Philip. “I am always looking at ways to do things better, how we can take more value from a crop and any value-added complementary projects that might work.”

Andrew Shanks who is the Farm Manager of Tyholland Mushrooms in Co. Monaghan, scooped the Young Producer Award which champions forward-thinking individuals whose technical ability or business aptitude promises to make a positive impact on their sector, and who demonstrate they have what it takes to lead the next generation of farmers.

At Tyholland Mushrooms, 160 staff work to grow, pack and deliver mushrooms that are supplied to M&S through Monaghan Mushrooms.

After leaving university and joining Monaghan Mushrooms as a graduate trainee, Andrew become Farm Manager at Tyholland in 2012, where he has been instrumental in improving the site’s efficiency and performance.

One of the most significant projects that Andrew has implemented has been one to help avoid inconsistencies in the weight of packed mushroom punnets.

“Working in conjunction with Monaghan’s Continuous Improvement Department, we rolled out a series of trials on the farm,” explains Andrew. “These trials identified that inconsistencies in punnet weight were often due to mistakes by pickers who weren’t accurately weighing the mushroom punnets they were filling. In response, I introduced extra training to help improve weighing accuracy and thanks to this, and other changes we implemented, the number of overweight punnets produced at Tyholland has reduced from 9% to 4%, and underweight punnets from 3% to less than 1%.”

Andrew also strives to maintain Tyholland farm’s strong environmental credentials; monitoring the energy, water and waste that the site produces on a weekly basis. By sourcing alternative recycling options, since 2013 Andrew has also been able to reduce the amount of waste that the site produces going to landfill by 50%.

John Dobson, who farms in Waringstown, Co. Armagh scooped runner-up in the Prince’s Countryside Fund Category. The Prince’s Countryside Fund is a charity which supports rural communities, and the award John won is designed to recognise producers in the food chain who are going the extra mile to support local communities.

Building resilience into his business has been a key focus for beef producer, John Dobson, who manages a 110-strong Aberdeen Angus suckler herd.

John first established his suckler enterprise in 1986 and used to buy in cattle for finishing to supplement the youngstock produced by the herd. John reassessed this approach due to volatility in the price he was paying for cattle, which was putting pressure on profit margins and adding unpredictability into his business model. In response, he gradually increased the size of his suckler herd to produce more of his own cattle to finish, reducing his need to buy in animals and shielding his business from the uncertainty of changing market prices.

To improve cattle performance and drive business efficiency, John has also invested in a new calving unit, upgrades to cow housing and spent years researching animal genomics to ensure that he finds the best bulls to match his cows.

“I have always been looking at ways to improve the business and ensure its long-term sustainability,” explains John. “Part of this has involved working closely with, and learning from, other beef producers in the US, Canada and Europe to see what I can do to enhance my beef enterprise and minimise the risk that is an inherent part of any farming business.”

“Part of this risk minimisation strategy has been to make my beef enterprise entirely self-sufficient in cereals and forage – the components that form the largest part of my herd’s rations. By reducing the reliance on bought-in feed, we protect ourselves from fluctuations in feed prices caused by volatile market forces.”

Claire Saunders, Director of The Prince’s Countryside Fund said: “John’s commitment to mentoring the beef farmers of the future is very impressive, and absolutely exemplifies what the Fund works to support in the British countryside.”

Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture and Fisheries at M&S said: “The Farming for the Future awards are now in their eleventh year, acknowledging the dedication and commitment our farmers and growers are making towards Plan A and sharing best practice amongst the agricultural community across Ireland and the UK.

“We have four very worthy winners and they have proved this by demonstrating their innovative thinking, commercial success and social responsibility in the way they manage and execute their businesses.”