Down through the generations, Millbank Farm in Killinchy, Newtownards, County Down has thrived by evolving in line with customer needs and market trends. Today, a busy farm shop in nearby Saintfield and an efficient broiler chicken operation are at the centre of this progressive family-run enterprise, which also comprises a long-established, extensive and sustainable mixed-farming initiative.
Perfectly blending the traditional with the progressive, Millbank Farm is an outstanding example of everything a family farm can be. The McGowan family have farmed on the same site in Killinchy since 1889 and, while a lot has changed over the decades, they have continued to produce great quality food in the fields of County Down for six generations and counting.
In the early years, the farm was a corn and sutch mill which processed flax for the local linen trade. Today, it is a medium mixed farm of around 400 acres – including 80 acres of cereals and 80 of veg as well as grazing for dairy heifers and 200 ewes. The McGowans also run two broiler houses to supply chicken to Moy Park, and in recent years have opened the farm’s first customer-facing venture – Millbank Farm Shop, which takes pride of place on Saintfield’s high street.
This diversification into directly serving the local public is in line with Millbank Farm’s policy of evolving and moving positively with the times. Creating a customer experience that provides fresh, honest, seriously local produce – predominantly grown at home on the family’s own farm or by neighbouring farmers in the immediate area, and with as little plastic packaging as possible – the shop supplies an ever-changing variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy, eggs, cheeses, deli, honey and whole foods, which are perfect for the home cook and chefs alike.
Adrian McGowan is at the helm of the business, alongside his wife Patricia. Eldest daughter, Susie (who built the company website and developed their brand identity) is a graphic designer in London; Victoria teaches at the local primary school; and Emily has joined Adrian on the Farm in Killinchy. The family business is exactly that, with ever member adding their own unique skills and input to build upon and improve the legacy of Millbank Farm.
Although these are testing times for the farming community in general, things are going well at Millbank Farm, where the increasingly diverse and multifaceted operation is perfectly suited both to the land that sustains it and the current economic climate. Business is brisk at the popular new farm shop, which links the farm with retail, and the fantastic work being invested on a daily basis by Adrian and his family was duly recognised at last year’s Farming Life Awards where the Millbank team picked up no fewer than three prestigious awards, striking gold in the Farm Diversification, Farming Family of the Year and Young Farmer of the Year categories, with Emily McGowan the worthy recipient of the latter award.
“We’re in transition at the moment and the farm shop is a big part of that,” Adrian confirms. “Emily runs the shop. We have eight staff there and it has been a major success so far. The shop itself has diversified to offer a wide range of products and our own vegetables would only account for a small percentage of that.
“Ironically, the two years of Covid really helped the shop. It’s in a strong commuter town and the people of Saintfield support the shop very well. We sell a lot of local fruit, which is sourced from local growers. Fruit is a very, very convenient food, which is ready to eat, and you can’t beat fresh produce.”
Millbank Farm Shop offers quality local fruit, vegetables, cheese and fine ingredients, much of it grown only six miles away on the family farm. It also boasts the first ‘No Waste Station’ in Northern Ireland, where the customer’s own containers can be re-used with a selection of nuts, dried fruit and wholefoods.
As a business, Millbank is committed to farming sustainably. The land is worked in a sympathetic way and every opportunity is taken to enhance the biodiversity of the local countryside. Some of the environmental initiatives undertaken here include tree planting, seeding wildflowers and keeping livestock to create higher organic matter in the soils.
A multiple-award-winning family farming enterprise which has been featured on popular agri-themed television shows Ear To The Ground and Rare Breed, Millbank Farm grows over 30 varieties of vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, kale, parsnips, carrots, leeks, turnips, cabbage, scallions, celery, swedes, pumpkins and squash.
Adrian started growing vegetables over 40 years ago and has supplied markets, wholesale, large supermarkets and discounters, but feels that the future is uncertain for small-to-medium-sized growers. “The price of veg has flatlined as we have become more efficient and you are overtaken eventually by the cost of production and the cost of inputs. The margins go from small to non-existent.
“To be honest, I’m not sure where the future lies for the small vegetable grower unless you can get the price. The small grower is really struggling at the moment and that’s why we are diversifying our business.
“We started the Moy Park broiler unit in 2017 and that’s a very steady enterprise. It’s a ten-year project initially and it’s going very well for us so far. We have 56,000 high-welfare birds, which are efficiently produced and I find that Moy Park are a great company to work with – very organised. That’s a stand-alone, low-labour venture, whereas everything else has a very high labour input.
“The farm shop and the chickens are our most productive activities at the moment. The vegetables are presenting plenty of challenges in comparison, while cereals have become more attractive again and we keep a couple of hundred sheep too, which adds to the overall variety.”
The land at Millbank is perfectly suited to mixed farming. “The land here is mixed,” Adrian confirms. “It’s undulating and some of it isn’t suited to arable. You need a few sheep to work the less attractive areas and it’s all about finding the right balance.”
A former chairman of the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s Vegetable Committee, Adrian is also a founding member of Veg NI, which was established to highlight the power of Northern Irish veg. “A number of growers from the province came together to promote the consumption of vegetables,” he relates. “We looked enviously to the South who have Ann Bord Bia to promote local produce while we didn’t have that brand or identity here. Instead, we tend to have a supermarket-type branding.
“We received £30,000 in funding from the Department of Agriculture and set up Veg NI to get our message across. To a large extent, it’s aimed at schools and children and we want to get the message through about the key role eating vegetables can play in healthier lifestyles and better health. You can’t beat vegetables for value or nutrition and they are also very environmentally-friendly.
“In general, I feel that as a nation we have lost our respect for food,” the Down farmer concludes. “Compared to our Southern European neighbours, for whom eating is a family thing and family is at the heart of people’s lives, we don’t look at food the way we used to. We need to restore our respect for food – and for the land as a whole.
“Farmers follow the market and that’s how they survive. As producers, we do what we can to meet demand. But it has to be sustainable and farms must be run in a way that farmers can make a living from them.”
11 Mill Road,
Tel: 028 97512692
Email: [email protected]
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 11 No 1, January/February 2023