'Hard work & determination!' Sixth-gen farmer shares how her food ends up on shop shelves

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Based in Northern Ireland, Tracy and Martin had been growing and selling vegetables for over 20 years to the wholesale market. But in 2003, the couple decided to try something new. Tracy explained: “After careful analysis of market trends, changes in eating habits and lifestyle patterns, we decided to diversify the business and make wholesome, healthy, convenient potato and vegetable side dishes on our family farm, from field to fork.”

Tracy continued: “By March 2004, after a year of designing and planning we had set up a production facility on our own farm. We wanted to create traditional tastes of homemade cooking using older heritage varieties of vegetables grown for taste rather than appearance and steam cook them to retain the natural nutrition and vitamins.”

The production facility led to Tracy and Martin’s farm becoming a national brand: Mash Direct.

Having always had a passion for sustainable farming and food production, Tracy was the first woman to sit on the board of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, and she is also a former board member of Food Northern Ireland, an independent body set up to promote the food and drink sector in Northern Ireland. She is also the sixth generation of her family to be a farmer.

It is unsurprising, then, that Mash Direct has become a successful household name in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Based in County Down, Tracy and Martin’s two sons, Lance and Jack, help Mash Direct to produce over 50 farm fresh products, 29 of which have won Great Taste Awards.

From innovative creations, like beer battered onion rings and cheese and onion croquettes, to culinary classics, like broccoli with a cheese sauce, and seasonal editions, including neeps and tatties, Tracy said “there are Mash Direct products for every occasion”.

“All products are cooked to perfection and are the ideal accompaniment to individual home cooked meals, Sunday lunches or family celebrations,” she added.

Stressing the importance of environmental issues when it comes to farming, Tracy continued: “Every aspect of farming has always been about sustainability, whether that is soil management, health, mental or physical.

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“Farming is directly connected to the crucial element of life. It has been said, ‘once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, and a preacher but every day three times a day you need a farmer’.

“We are very aware that the way we all behave must change in the face of the current climate emergency. Mash Direct are committed to increasing our brand sustainability credentials and have been working on several projects to improve the sustainability of the business and the farm.

“Being sixth generation farmers, our family feel attached to the land we farm and recognise the responsibility within the agri-food sector to protect the environment. We have a sustained commitment to environmental management to adopt best farming practices and assist in restoring farmland and biodiversity, improve the quality of water, air and soil, enhance the landscape and help mitigate against climate change.”

Last year, Tracy and Martin planted 6,000 trees across the farm, and the couple work closely with the RSPB to look after threatened species of birds who breed on the farm’s land, such as the Yellow Hammer.

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“The Mash Direct factory sits right on our family farm allowing a fast transition period from farm to factory to supermarket shelves,” Tracy explained.

“We have one of the most vertically integrated supply chains in the ready-meal sector. We grow the majority of our vegetables, wash, prepare, steam cook, and pack our award-winning vegetable side dishes.

“This reinforces the trust consumers place on our products considering the increasing importance consumers place on traceability, sustainability, and transparency.”

The farmer went on to describe the average day on the farm, saying: “It’s very hands on, a lot of hard work and determination is required but I am passionate about what we do. Our family love the land and the wonderful produce we grow, steam cook and pack on our family farm.

“Every day is exceptionally busy, and fast paced – a typical day involves, getting up at 6am, attending a daily management meeting, checking on daily production and attending various networking events and meetings to promote the brand.”

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Due to spending long hours outside, often alone with only the crops or animals as company, farming can be an isolating job. However, Tracy’s role requires lots of talking, and so, she said she never feels lonely.

“As a family business, we are always communicating with each other, our customers, and suppliers daily,” she explained.

“It never gets lonely. We are very passionate about what we do, and we like to maintain the ethos of a wholesome, family orientated, farming enterprise.

“We place a strong emphasis on creating and growing a strong workforce and instilling great relationships with our employees on the farm. As we continue to grow, we want to protect the longevity of the business and drive it towards future success.”

Another difficult aspect to farming can be the natural elements – farmers cannot control the weather, and sometimes it can lead to disasters, such as crop devastation.

Fortunately, Tracy’s family has been lucky this year. The farmer said: “It has been yet another tough year for everyone in the farming community, and not least for consumers too with rising costs on the horizon.

“That’s why we are so pleased that our potato crop is a bumper one this year and we are going to be able to deliver great value potato dishes to the UK retailers to sell around the country.

“We have been very fortunate to have a bumper harvest this year – we are expecting up to 30 percent uplift in potatoes harvested this year, due to carefully planned planting of the right varieties and a fortunate mix of sunshine and showers.”

Tracy explained that Mash Direct grows “six varieties of potato and we will continue to harvest into October, turning the bumper crops into delicious potato-based side dishes including mashed potato, chilli baby bakes, and beer battered chips”.

For Tracy, it is fulfilling to see her produce on supermarket shelves after all the hard work that goes into getting it there.

She added: “It is amazing to see our products stocked on the shelves of the supermarkets throughout the UK and Ireland.

“We often receive letters from people around the country thanking us for making a difference to their lives and making meal times easier.”



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