An Irish Farm with Sustainable Innovation in its DNA

Nachhaltige Innovation
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I loved that a family owned farm was the winner of the Green Food and Beverage Award at the recent Green Awards awards in Ireland, seeing off competition from multinationals like Coca-Cola and Irish food conglomerates such as Aurivo. As one of the judges of the awards, I was delighted! Not just because of the ‘David versus Goliath’ nature of the battle, but even more so because the winner, Meade Farm Group, was highly creative and innovative. #Innovation was the thing that I was missing most from many entrants across all categories in the Green Awards. There were lots of companies doing very solid and important work to become more #sustainable, but I was crying out to see more innovation and creative thinking to address the distinct #sustainabilitychallenges of a particular sector. I’m with Bill Gates in the belief that innovation is the key to overcoming climate change.

The Meade Farm Group is unusual in a dairy country like Ireland where only 1% of all farms grow vegetables. The business started in 1977, with the father of the current generation managing the business, selling the potatoes he grew on five acres in the Boyne Valley in towns nearby. From these humble beginnings the business has expanded to growing on 3000 acres of land, with a turnover of €60 million, and it is now one of the Ireland’s leading growers and packers of potatoes, fruit and vegetables.

On their website they refer to sustainability being in the family DNA. Innovation seems to be engrained there too, with Robert Devlin executive director for Meade Farm Group, echoing Bill Gates in saying “We believe that if you are going to be sustainable, you have to be innovative”.

Innovating to achieve Zero Food Waste

Potatoes account for almost 40% of all food lost or wasted at primary production level in Ireland. A very sobering fact when one thinks of Ireland’s history and how the potato famine shaped us. History aside, this level of waste is a massive challenge both for the Meade Farm Group as a business and for Ireland as a country as we strive to meet our climate targets. (According to the Environmental Protection Agency food waste generates 8% – 10% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.)

Meade Farm Group has recently developed and launched a food grade potato starch, becoming the first company in the UK or Ireland to manufacture such a product. The raw ingredients are potatoes that are not of a spec to be sold into other channels and other potato by-products. With this innovative product they are reducing waste and increasing profit. The response from food manufacturers and from chefs – both professional and amateur – is very positive. Potato starch is used to thicken sauces and soups. In many cases Meade Farm Potato Starch is being used as an alternative to corn flour, which up until now has been imported from the USA, bringing an added sustainability dividend.

Gleaning, the practice of going into a recently harvested field and picking up whatever remains, is ancient (it’s mentioned in the Old Testament ). But it’s rarely done in western Europe nowadays. Meade Farm have brought it back through a pioneering collaboration with the not-for-profit FoodCloud. Volunteers, often from corporate organisations, go out into the fields after harvesting machines have finished, to pick up any remaining vegetables. These rescued vegetables are then given to local charities. Interestingly, research shows that one of the additional benefits of gleaning is making the volunteers much more aware of their own food waste and it has a knock-on effect in behavioural change.

With these and other actions Meade Farm is able to deliver Zero Food Waste and after a visit The EU Commission Agri-Focus Group has praised it as “an excellent example of best practise” in avoiding food waste.

Innovating to growing crops more sustainably and supporting biodiversity

The Meade family works with a network of partner farmers, in addition to running two farms of their own. Many of these are livestock farmers, who rotate the growth of various vegetable crops with putting animals in the fields, thereby building up healthy organic matter in the soils. This means of course less use of fertiliser. Where they need to use fertilisers they use organic inputs where possible such as seaweed and other natural fertilisers.

They keep weed killers to the minimum and in 2020 became one of the first in Ireland have a camera-guided Garford Weeder that enables targeted weeding without using herbicides.

They employ an Integrated Pest Management system which includes the innovative use of Owl boxes strategically placed throughout their crops. Owls are brilliant natural pest controllers. The Owl boxes are built in partnership with local Men’s Sheds groups with the Meade Farm Group never missing an opportunity to benefit the community and the environment with creative partnerships.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Biodiversity is given a high priority at Meade Farm. They are participants in the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan and have planted wildflowers around the farms to provide a haven for bees. They have their own beehives and a resident beekeeper.

An aversion to waste

Meade Farm boasts of an aversion to waste of any sort! They harvest rainwater, and have a water filtration system which allows them to recirculate water used in the washing of potatoes. They have their own wind turbine and have installed solar panels and heat exchangers. They have reduced their use of plastic through the development of 100% compostable paper packaging, which has won them a series of sustainability awards.

A worthy winner!

Sustainability and innovation are at the heart of everything this company does, and that makes Meade Farm Group a very worth recipient of the Green Food & Beverage Award for 2024.