Established in 1988, O’Hanlon Herbs provides Irish customers with a full range of fresh herbs. We met up with company founder / proprietor Tom O’Hanlon at his Glenealy, County Wicklow nursery to take a closer look at this unique operation.
From humble beginnings in a small suburban back garden / kitchen in County Dublin some 26 years ago, O’Hanlon Herbs has grown to become Ireland’s leading specialist in fresh herbs, including basil, coriander, parsley, mint, rosemary and thyme.
From its state-of-the-art, An Bord Bia-approved Garden County greenhouse, O’Hanlon Herbs supplies supermarkets, food service and independent stores throughout the country with a full range of high-quality, fresh potted herbs. O’Hanlon Herbs also works closely with local seasonal farms to produce quality Irish cut herbs, which are packed and graded in the company’s BRC ‘A’ grade pack house.
The business relocated to a Wicklow farm, close to Glenealy, in 1992. Around about this time, the popularity of fresh herbs started to grow rapidly; in response to this growing market, O’Hanlon Herbs has invested continually in its cutting-edge growing and packing facilities.
In 2012, a significant investment was made in converting the company’s heating system from an oil burner to biofuel – using Wicklow woodchip, supporting the local biofuel industry and reducing O’Hanlon Herbs’ carbon footprint.
Reflecting on the genesis of the business, Tom O’Hanlon reveals: “I was eighteen years old when I started growing herbs in the back garden in Cabinteely, County Dublin. I had no background in either horticulture or farming but I did have a keen interest in horticulture, having worked in nurseries as a kid and attended Warrenstown College.
“I was looking for a niche market and I started out in a small way on my own, growing herbs at home to generate some money from myself.” In those early days, the growing was seasonal and Tom grew whatever he could – mostly parsley, coriander, basil, rosemary, mint. A contract was secured with Quinnsworth and Tom began to buy herbs from other local growers as well as importing during the winter to ensure that he provided a year-round supply.
But the fledgling business had outgrown the back garden and Tom realised he had to put down roots – quite literally – elsewhere. A milestone move followed…
“I was looking for some level, sheltered land in Wicklow with good access and was almost at the point of giving up when I found this site,” he recalls. “Nothing else I had looked at was suitable but this site was completely level and of a good size. I moved here to Glenealy and put up some tunnels in ’92.
“We were still packing in Bray from rented premises and in ’99 I got the funds together to put up a pack house here. We had about 20 employees at that time. In the late ‘90s we secured our business with Tesco, who were new to Ireland, and that was a very significant contract to get. We enjoyed double-digit growth for a number of years and staff numbers went up to 30 by 2008. The business has continued to grow and we now have 50 employees as we speak.”
Many of the 50 staff are long serving employees of the business and Tom greatly values the low staff turnover, continuity of service and loyalty given to the business by all members of the team. It’s very much a collective effort, he stresses.
The next major departure was to move the growing indoors: “In 2008, pre-crisis, we were still growing potted herbs on a seasonal basis and supplementing them with imports. On the back of new business with the two discounters (Aldi and Lidl), we invested in a glasshouse structure with automated heating, lighting, screening and shading and we could now grow potted herbs on a serious, professional basis, twelve months of the year.
“We got to grips with that over the next few years and then in 2012 we expanded the glasshouse again. We intend to expand it once more, to Phase III, in 2015. Everything is now grown in a controlled environment inside the glasshouse, under protection, because we have regular orders to fill and this new set-up enables us to almost predict our ‘crop out’ to the day.”
O’Hanlon Herbs currently produces over two million pots per year. Basil is the most popular herb grown, followed by coriander, parsley, mint and rosemary. “We have replicated a Mediterranean climate and can now grow potted herbs all year around,” Tom continues. “We changed from oil-fired heating to the woodchip boiler two years ago because oil was becoming prohibitively expensive and woodchip is a locally-sourced, sustainable biofuel.”
Fresh herbs provide a natural and healthy way to enhance the flavour and nutritional value of any meal. “Due to a combination of foreign travel, people eating out and the influence of celebrity chefs, people are starting to use more and more fresh ingredients,” Tom notes. “Herbs are a natural product with natural flavouring and obvious health properties. Using them is habit-forming and I’m confident that more of the population will be converted.
“They are a soft, fragile commodity subject to the vagaries of the weather and the supply chain, so we constantly monitor every stage of the process to ensure maximum shelf life and performance.
“David Flynn and Albert Ruiter are the two growers who grow cut herbs for us in the summer months as well as seasonal herbs in the winter. As they are local growers, we can pick and pack them quickly and ensure that they arrive on the shelf fresh. We also have a very quick turnaround on the cut herbs which we import from Spanish, Italian and African (Moroccan and Kenyan) producers.”
Tom’s hard work and vision have seen O’Hanlon Herbs evolve into by far and away the largest and most sophisticated potted herb grower in Ireland and, as the population’s penchant for fresh herbs continues to increase, one can only envisage further growth for this unique and dynamic homegrown company.
Tel: 0404 44999
Email: [email protected]
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 7, December 2014