It was reported at the start of January 1978 that the first ever containerised cargo of seed potatoes had left Belfast for Lebanon.
Following successful trial shipment in December 1977 when the shippers and consignees expressed their satisfaction with the method of transport, Ulster Potato Enterprises Limited after much generous effort and negotiations awarded the contract for the movement of the 555 tons to Ellerman Container Services, represented in Northern Ireland by G Heyn and Sons Limited (Head Line).
Mr David Armstrong, technical and sale director of Ulster Potato Enterprises Limited, spoke about the venture as he watched the containers being loaded on to the Seefalke at Belfast Port in January 1978. He said: “This is a very significant breakthrough in the potato export business. By shipping the potatoes in containers there is less damage to the crop and fewer losses in transit.”
Mr Armstrong continued: “The potatoes are loaded on the farm and are never touched again until they reach the customer. Previously they were sent by cargo and the labour involved was extensive plus the fact that excessive handling caused damage to the crop. It was usual to have to include two per cent of empty bags with cargo to hold spillages etc.”
Mr Armstrong explained that the bagged potatoes were loaded on the farms into brand new 20 foot containers which had been built by Ulcon Limited, Newry, to a special ventilated design for the carriage of perishable cargoes. The containers were shipped aboard vessels with forced ventilation in the holds to ensure that the valuable contents arrived at their destination in prime condition.
Another significant advantage is that individual orders from 15 tonnes upwards can be accommodated giving the merchants great flexibility in their selling arrangements.
Also, the freight rates offered by the shipping company avoided the financial risks involved in the charter market.
Ulster Potato Enterprises Limited was a subsidiary of Robert Craig and Sons (Merchants) Limited, Ahoghill, and was formed in accordance with the progressive development of the company. This development involved two distinct phases.
Firstly, they had established a modern store, complete with a high capacity grading and packing line plus the establishment of a body of reputable growers who were to grow quality potatoes on contract to the company.
The second phase involved more direct contact with customers and the provision of a technical service. Thus Ulster Potato Enterprises Limited had been formed.
The appointment of Mr Armstrong had been welcomed by growers for his reputation as head of the Potato Inspectorate Division, Department of Agriculture, was well known and in the position he had been actively involved in a market development programme where he was responsible for establishing contacts with official and commercial interests in Great Britain and abroad.
Indeed, Robert Craig and Sons (Merchants) Limited had made special mention of the helpful co-operation which they had had from the Department of Agriculture with regard to the streamlining of inspection procedures for the shipment to Lebanon.
The significance of the new method of shipping the product to Lebanon in January 1978 reflected the fact that talks were already underway to make use of more containers being completed by Ulcon Limited for further potato shipments on the next direct sailing in the coming weeks.
It was anticipated that it would load not only for Lebanon but also for other Mediterranean countries covered by Ellerman Container Services including Portugal, Cyprus, Malta and the Middle East.
Mr M MacLaran from G Heyn and Sons Ltd remarked: “The ship’s call to Belfast today demonstrates the company’s genuine commitment to serving Northern Ireland trade.”