The potato has played a massive part in the history of Ireland and it is the one food group that symbolises what has made the country what it is today.
The potato famine changed Ireland forever as not only did it result in thousands of people dying, but it also saw hundreds of thousands emigrate to mainly the U.S. The particular variety of potato that was commonplace in Ireland at that time was called the Lumper – a potato which has not been commercially cultivated since then.
However, thanks to a new breeding programme developed by Michael McKillop of agri-food business ‘Glens of Antrim Potatoes’, the Lumper has made a return to these shores.
This particular type of potato is an integral part of our history and Michael tells this month’s edition of Irish Tractor & Agri about how he came to start breeding the Lumper again and all about his family-run business.
“In 2007 I met a man called David Langford, a hobby breeder, at a potato event in Co. Down. David had a particular type of potato with him that I hadn’t seen before, which he had been growing at his plot. I asked him what they were and was shocked to learn that it was the Lumper, the potato that had played such a huge part in the Irish famine,” said Michael.
“I took a few seeds from David for my own plot at home and when harvested I was surprised by the taste and shape so I decided to start my own breeding programme which I developed over the next five years.”
“When the first commercial crop was ready in 2012, we secured a listing with Marks and Spencer for their Discovery range which sold out within a few weeks. Since then the demand has continued to grow for this heritage product and we have been inundated with requests for the Lumper from both retailers and customers alike.”
The chairman of the Committee Commemoration Irish Famine Victims (CCIFV), Michael Blanch, has also been in touch with the company because of the connection the Lumper had with the famine.
In partnership with Glens of Antrim Potatoes, the CCIFV now takes the Lumper to schools as part of a ‘Living History’ programme and shows the children how to plant, cultivate and harvest their own crop.
”We’re delighted to have developed a relationship with the CCIFV and thrilled that they have used the potato as a prop in schools and at talks about the famine. The fact that it tastes nice is also a big plus and has meant that its popularity continues to grow,” added Michael.
The Antrim native has been in the potato growing business all his life having left school at 15 to work in the family company that was set up by his father Charlie. These days the business is now run by Michael and his brother Charlie Jnr.
“We grow a wide range of potatoes from Roosters, Queens, Navan, Kerr Pinks, King Edward, Maris-Piper and Whites – as well as a selection of new varieties which we are about to bring to market. We are hopeful that there will be a reasonable yield this year due to the recent spell of fine weather. This will soon become clear once the crops are harvested and assessed for skin finish and taste.”
“However, the drawback with this is that there will be an excess of potatoes on the market which will mean that prices will be down. Growers need to cut back and align themselves with a confirmed outlet instead of speculative growing.”
From their premises just outside Cushendall in Co Antrim, this family run business supplies a wide range of supermarkets both north and south of the border.
With five trucks of their own on the road on a daily basis delivering product, they also use some sub-contractors and even DHL who deliver to mainland U.K for them.
“We harvest in the region of 400 to 500 acres of potatoes each year which we then bring back to our premises where they are sorted, washed and bagged. We have placed major investment in the business and have put in a new wash line and picking machine in recent times to aid in this process.”
After the potatoes go through the necessary procedures, they are then placed in cold storage until needed. This unit is kept at two to three degrees which means the life span of the potato is extended.
“Around 400 tonnes of packed potatoes are processed every week and about 26,000 tonnes of potatoes on intake will go through the plant on an annual basis.”
“We check the stock weekly to monitor how much is going out to the shops and this helps us to assess what we will have left at the end of the year.”
Michael does fear for the future of the potato industry as he revealed that potato consumption has fallen significantly in recent years.
“There certainly needs to be more done to promote the potato. Consumption levels have dropped a lot in the last ten years and this is due to the fact that people are opting for ready-made meals, rice and pasta more so now than in the past.”
“In most families, you have parents working long hours and it’s easier for them to come home in the evening and opt for ready-made meals rather than cook potatoes. We feel that the potato needs to be better promoted and consumers need to be made aware of the health benefits and also learn more about how quick and easy they are to prepare. At the end of the day, you can’t beat a nice potato!”
Despite the concerns that consumption levels are dropping, Michael is happy with the direction that the company is heading as their customer base remains loyal. However, Michael is not complacent, he is aware that the market is ever changing and is always looking at new ways to sell the humble spud.
“As a business, we must be prepared to find new and exciting ways to innovate, grow and, ultimately, sell our products. This will not only help ensure that we can continue to bring our potatoes to families everywhere but that we can help guarantee the success and growth of our family-run company for many years to come.”
Glens of Antrim Potatoes
t 048 2177 1396
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 2 No 4, September 2014