Food entrepreneur Una Wycherley of Larkin’s Hill Farm in Tipperary discusses the importance of quality produce and being innovative in the face of the Covid-19 lockdown. Her business was one of 15 to graduate recently from the SuperValu Food Academy.

Larkin’s Hill Farm is a family run traditional mixed farm located in the picturesque village of Puckane, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. Larkin’s Hill Farm grows their produce on some of the best soil Ireland has to offer with lands situated beside the beautiful Lough Derg.

This fertile land allows them to grow their food naturally creating highly nutritious produce.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the need to have a robust supply chain, which means that we all need to support Irish food producers like SuperValu is doing”

The company was one of 15 firms from all over Ireland that were selected to join the SuperValu Food Academy.

Now in its seventh year, the SuperValu Food Academy is a unique food business development programme between SuperValu, Bord Bia and the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs). Participants in the programme receive training in market research and branding, food safety, marketing, finance and business development.

What is the food opportunity you are addressing and why it matters to consumers?

Larkin’s Hill Farm is all about bringing fresh, locally-grown fresh-leaf greens and vegetables to Irish consumers. Due to Covid-19, the public has become increasingly aware of the importance of food provenance and consumers are increasingly interested in purchasing high-quality, fresh food that is locally produced and sourced. As all of our products are 100pc natural and grown in Tipperary, Larkins Hill Farm is responding to this increased demand for healthy, locally produced food.

What is your core product and service all about?

Larkin’s Hill Farm’s core range consists of mixed salad leaves, kale and spinach. Quality is paramount for our product, so we make sure that every step of the process meets the highest standards. It starts with the careful selection of seeds to ensure good and tasty varieties, and we also ensure that the compost we use is certified organic and is carefully chosen for its blend of natural ingredients. We are also fortunate that our products are grown in very rich soil and we pay particular attention to the growing process to ensure that all of our plants receive the care they need. You could say that our product really does come from the ground up, and we believe that nurturing the soil will nurture the plant and in turn this will nurture the person.”

Who are the founders of the company and what are the experiences that encouraged you to become a food/beverage products business?

I’m the founder and I set up the business because I was brought up on an organic farm. My mother was my first teacher and we grew up being nourished by the products that she grew in her garden. That was my introduction to healthy food, and it’s where my appreciation and love for growing my own product originated. My formal third-level education was in food nutrition, and I was lucky to do an apprenticeship in organic farming with the Irish Seed Savers Association in Co Clare, where we were tutored in all of the principles of organic farming. Later on, I also trained in commercial gardening, so this combination of my personal and educational background meant that I when it came to setting up my own business, I was determined that it would focus on producing healthy, organically grown products.

What was the product development journey like and how do platforms like the SuperValu Food Academy help?

When I started out, I was supplying some of the small local shops in Tipperary with produce. It was a good experience, but it was the SuperValu Food Academy where my food retail journey really started. Food Academy gave me a thorough understanding of how a brand is developed and how its potential is realised. I’d also add that the guidance and mentoring Food Academy provided was second to none. I wouldn’t have seen Larkin’s Hill Farm develop to such an extent as it did without the help and support I received as a participant on the programme.”

What are your impressions of the food products ecosystem in your region and in Ireland in general and what can be done to boost the overall industry?

If you look at our supply chain, Ireland is still very dependent on sourcing food from outside the country. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the need to have a robust supply chain, which means that we all need to support Irish food producers like SuperValu is doing, through its support for the Food Academy programme and through its commitment to sourcing locally whenever possible. This approach will strengthen our indigenous food ecosystem and support local businesses, which in turn will lead to more job creation across the country. The Covid-19 pandemic has also made consumers re-assess their relationship with food and as part of that, they are now more conscious of the need to return to local, both from an Irish and regional perspective. We are very fortunate in Ireland because we have some of the world’s top food producers across every sector. They need to be nourished and supported in every way they can.

What are the biggest mistakes or lessons you have learned so far?

I’m learning new lessons every day, but so far my biggest learning has been not to be afraid to ask for help. I think this is a very Irish trait and generally, we don’t like to ask for support. We are fortunate to have Food Academy and the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs), and the supports they provide to start-up businesses are second to none. The other big lesson I have learnt is that as a business owner, you cannot cover all bases. If I’m busy doing deliveries or looking after finances, that means less time spent in the fields growing and nurturing our products. I have learnt to delegate and draw on others’ expertise. I haven’t made any big mistakes yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen!

What advice do you have for others entering the food business?

First and foremost, do your research and look at what other similar businesses are doing. Don’t be afraid to draw on support from family and friends and also to ask for help from other businesses. When I was setting up Larkin’s Hill Farm, I called other food producers and they were really happy to talk through their whole process. With SuperValu Food Academy, I was also very fortunate because it has a wealth of resources available in terms of mentors and previous participants who were readily available to answer my questions. When it comes to developing your brand, SuperValu’s Food Academy will ensure you are operating to a very high standard, and if you are looking at setting up a food business, I highly recommend you take part in the programme.

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 16 June, 2020

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