Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development Michelle Gildernew took a day out of her busy ministerial schedule and devoted it exclusively to the mushroom industry. On Wednesday 12th of December the Minister's first port of call on the day was to the Tandragee and Cabragh Composting facilities outside Tandragee, Co. Armagh. Accompanied by colleagues from the department and representatives of Invest NI, the Minister made an extensive tour around the Phase II and Phase III yards, along with industry representatives Sean McArdle from Reen Compost, Kieran Smyth of Amycel and Mel O'Rourke of Sylvan Ireland.
Tandragee Compost Managing Director Thomas McKew led the explanatory expedition, starting with a look at the phase II end of the operation.
The minister inspects the mushroom spawn, as Mel O'Rourke explains some spawn facts as Thomas McKew looks on.
As the ministerial group moved on, through the compost yard, Stephen McKew filled in any knowledge gaps, with detailed explanations of the processes involved in getting the new Phase III yard up and running.
Right: Sean McArdle of Reen Compost, with Toss McKew founder of Tandragee Compost - in the phase 11 area.
The beneficial aspects of phase III were fully discussed with the Minister - including the consistency of supply, the environmentally friendlier fact that no plastic is used, the fact that phase III production is a less odourous operation and how it leads to better utilisation of labour. The Minister explored all facets of the compost yards and the Phase III production buildings, machinery and tunnels.
The assembled group move into the compost yard amongst the compost heaps in Tandragee.
The group then moved on to Portadown, to view the modern mushroom growing unit operated by James TIffney and his son Dermot. The minister was impressed by how much things had changed since the last time she had been in a mushroom tunnel, many years previously.
Dermot Tiffney operating the loading machine for the Phase III compost. The Phase III compost was being loaded into a house on conveyor belts already pinned and ready for the maturation process to begin. The Minister then donned protective outer wear to look at a more advanced growing tunnel up close. As pickers worked away at the shelves, Dermot Tiffney engaged the Minister in deep conversation about the intricacies of growing perfect produce.
K.Hughes Ltd Logo Then it was on to K.Hughes Ltd at Trewmount Road near Dungannon. The Minister was cordially greeted by the MD, Kieran Hughes; then after giving some radio interviews the Minister and guests were able to grab a bite of lunch before touring the packaging facility. Donning more protective headgear and white coat, the Minister viewed the automated and semi-automated areas of the packaging hall.
Managing Director Kieran Hughes points out some of the finer details in the packaging hall.
Mushrooms from Hughes go out all over the UK and Ireland, in different grades and punnets. The whole operation is run in a tightly regulated environment to prevent any contamination or deterioration of produce. Once again the Minister seemed very well briefed about all aspects of the operation, and genuinely interested in the whole process.
Punnets on the move!
Minister poses with the produce.
After the packing hall the minister was treated to a succinct expose on the pan-European situation with special reference to Ireland, by spawn man Mel O'Rourke. The essence of the prognosis was not at all downbeat, with the spectre of a Polish mushroom invasion receding. Mel's thesis was that Irish growers are well placed at the present moment to make further in-roads into the main market in GB.
Smiling : Spawn men Kieran Smyth Amycel and Mel O'Rourke Sylvan with MinisterGildernew @ the Tiffney Farm.
He maintained that quality is the issue that sets the Irish produce above the rest. After the talk, the Minister fielded questions by an assemblage from the industry, including compost producers, growers and marketing men. The top question was about the concern on availability of phase III compost and whether any departmental funding might become available. The Minster nodded at this and then explained that "the nod means that I hear you."
The Minister pointed out that Departmental budgetary constraints are very tight at the moment, but that she, along with colleagues in the Department, were looking at every possible avenue to see if some funding for the industry might be available. The Minister was not pledging funds up front, but pointed out that various different funding structures were available for growers and other business ventures via the Rural Development Fund and government backed interest free loans. After the Q & A session the Minister thanked all those who had been involved in organising the day's itinerary and hosting the assembled industry personnel.
James Tiffney, Thomas McKew, Stephen Mc Kew, Minister Michelle Gildernew receives fresh produce from Kieran Hughes - Managing Director K.Hughes Ltd, Elaine Shaw Director Northway P.O., William Magee, Invest NI.
The Minister was warm in her praise of the industry and the endeavours of all those who are trying to keep the local sector alive and kicking. The assembled industry cohort was in turn a very attentive audience and the minister received a strong round of applause at the close of the session.