Both north and south Ireland has long supplied fresh produce to Great Britain, including established export lines like potatoes, mushrooms, packed fruit and salads. Increasingly, more niche, convenience and exotic items have started to gain interest among British buyers too. Produce Business UK looks at the present status of the trade and the emerging trends that have the potential to expand Ireland’s footprint across the water
Current state of play
According to Michelle Charrington – the person responsible for food trade and business development in Great Britain at regional economic development agency Invest Northern Ireland – vegetables, rather than fruit, are the big contenders when it comes to food exports from Ireland, with a large proportion being supplied to the bigger retailers.
“On the fresh fruit side, most of what is being sent over to Great Britain from Northern Ireland is pre-packaged products, such as the sliced fresh fruit packs supplied by Simply Fruit to Tesco and other retailers.
“In terms of vegetables, Gilfresh is very strong in fresh, whole head vegetables, while businesses like Avondale and Willowbrook prepare products such as chopped and diced vegetables or wet salads,” Charrington adds.
“Avondale, for example, holds approximately a 25% share of the UK market for coleslaw. Willowbrook, meanwhile, is strong in the convenience sector; supplying retailers with salad buckets and prepared vegetable products.”
Across the border, a recent report from Bord Bia (the Republic of Ireland’s national food board) indicates that food and drink exports to the UK from the south of Ireland have increased by 51% since 2009. Mushroom sendings have played a significant role in that growth – as opposed to potatoes, which are generally grown for the home market.
In fact, Mike Neary, manager of horticulture at Bord Bia, says as much as 75% of mushroom production in Ireland is exported primarily to the UK; garnering an income of over €100 million (£77.9m) per annum.
Innovation and diversification
With regards to exports to Great Britain, although Charrington maintains that mushrooms and potatoes are the overall areas in which northern Ireland, and the country as a whole, remains particularly strong, she says suppliers are branching out their offer nonetheless.
When it comes to maximising opportunities to export more to Britain, innovation and diversification certainly go a long way. For instance, the emergence of more niche products from Ireland is already helping to widen trade prospects.
One example is Squeeze Wheatgrass, a small Northern Irish business started by entrepreneur Jacquelyn Stewart. Stewart claims 60-65% of her business is now attributable to online sales in the UK. Her products are also stocked in six As Nature Intended stores in London, and she is currently in talks to supply to the UK’s leading online grocery retailer Ocado.
In recent years, Charrington at Invest NI points out that some Irish potato suppliers have also made significant inroads in Great Britain by going down the route of providing heritage produce and processed products, such as potato bread, which enjoy a niche appeal among British consumers.
Mash Direct, a family-run business in County Down, is one such grower-exporter to diversify its offer; having started to supply fresh, pre-packaged convenience products, such as mashed potato or ‘champ’ (Northern Ireland’s take on mash), steamed cooked kale, cauliflower cheese and mashed carrot, parsnip and turnip.
Mash Direct’s Jack Hamilton tells PBUK the firm started off by supplying produce to local businesses and now it is catering to big-name retailers in the UK, such Asda, Ocado, Tesco and Whole Foods Market.
The strength of the business might have something to do with convenience-loving Brits but Hamilton claims it also comes down to the fact that Mash Direct’s produce is freshly grown and innovative in its approach. For example, he reveals the company will shortly launch sweet potato croquettes with a gluten-free crust – a product that will cater to modern day, allergy-conscious consumers.
Another niche product emerging from Ireland is – believe it or not – kelp. Islander, a new business which grows and exports kelp products from its home on Rathlin Island, is seeing interest from Great Britain emerge at a slow but encouraging rate.
The product comes in a variety of different shapes and sizes, including: noodle cut, tagliatelle cut, salad cut, minced and whole leaf, or as a sole ingredient. Islander’s homemade pesto also contains 60% kelp.
Owner Kate McClarnan, shares how the business is faring so far: “We sell a lot of kelp to a company making soups for Marks and Spencer and we have distributor based out of Glasgow in Green City, which distributes widely throughout the UK. At the same time, we are distributing to both high end and vegetarian restaurants in London. We’re a very new company so business has been slow but incremental; we are growing steadily.”
McClarnan admits that one major difficulty in developing business in the UK has been knowing how to access to the right markets. “We’re learning that the best approach is to go directly to chefs and retailers,” she notes.
“It has been a slow process and a real learning curve but we’ve taken any spare time to continue on product development and to develop a range of equipment and machinery that allows us to produce consistently. It means we’re now in a position to respond to orders that we would not have been able to this time last year.”
Building on mushroom success
Supporting the ongoing mushroom boom in Ireland, meanwhile, are suppliers such as Monaghan Mushrooms, Hughes Mushrooms, Northway and UniMush, as well as newer and smaller businesses like Button Mushrooms, which is eager to broaden its horizons.
When speaking to John McKew from Button Mushrooms – a business that only eight months ago started to supply mushrooms in addition to its 40-year-long mushroom compost business – it’s evident he is encouraged by the response his firm is already receiving from buyers across the water.
“We have just recently started supplying our mushrooms to the UK and we are already supplying producers in Liverpool and Wigan, and to Tesco,” he tells PBUK. “We have a modern farm. It was expensive to set up but this will hopefully enable us to continue to expand, and perhaps even grow some exotic mushrooms, such as oyster and shiitake at some point.”
What also lies behind Ireland’s mushroom success in the UK is associations like Bord Bia, which, as the organisation’s horticulture manager Neary explains, has managed several promotional campaigns for mushrooms over the years.
“The north and south of Ireland (and the UK) have been running a generic mushroom promotional campaign over the last two years called Just Add Mushrooms,” he explains. “This, combined with a previous initiative, has resulted in 600,000 more households buying mushrooms in the UK. It was a great collaboration between the north, south and the UK.”
In addition, Northern Ireland is marketing a strategic action plan called ‘Going for growth’, which has been developed in support of Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry. The strategy identifies the need to assist businesses, including mushroom suppliers, with all the tools and training necessary to result in produce growth.
Retail growth opportunities
Aside from strengthening Ireland’s produce trade to the UK through innovative products and promotional campaigns, Charrington at Invest Northern Ireland believes there is also potential to supply secondary retailers in the UK, such as the so-called ‘Pound-shop’ businesses, which are starting to list fresh produce lines in their stores.
Moreover, she says the real “game changer” for Irish producers could be the introduction of the AmazonFresh online grocery delivery service to the UK market. “This is a great opportunity for any major player providing fresh produce,” she adds.
Strengths and weaknesses
When it comes to marketing Ireland’s point of difference to UK buyers, meanwhile, Charrington maintains that one of Ireland’s strengths as a producer is its landscape and natural environment, which lend themselves to a “clean and green” food image.
“There is a lot of passion behind Irish food and produce,” she asserts. “There are the personalities behind the food and also the quality that has been maintained through tradition and standards. For instance, we carry out a very strong new product development (NPD) programme and we’re well funded by the government to ensure food is centred on excellence.”
However, one obstacle faced by Irish suppliers, particularly small businesses, is the practical side of shipping produce to the UK. “Our main challenge is that small stretch of water between Ireland and the UK, and how to distribute produce in a cost-efficient, timely and reliable way,” Charrington explains. “It all works well when the volumes go above a certain level but for small volumes it can be a bit of a challenge for smaller companies.”
But for long-standing businesses, especially mushroom suppliers, the whole idea of transportation does not seem as much of a problem anymore. “These are businesses that have been running for over 30 years so transportation is now at the stage where it has been streamlined, and 99% of the time it’s hassle-free,” points out Neary at Bord Bia.
When it comes to exporting fresh produce to Great Britain, it’s safe to say that Ireland’s real hero remains the mushroom. However, this should not take away buyers’ attention from other Irish products coming through that could potentially open up a wider range of markets and consumers, such as new varieties of mushrooms or innovative products like wheatgrass and kelp, plus convenience items.