Three years after heavy milk price fluctuation spurred Dean Wright to reassess his business model, the Portadown farmer has recently brought his first product to market in the shape of a premium triple cream cheese. agendaNi visits Ballylisk Cheese to find out more about the nascent enterprise and its place within the local economy.
Recently awarded Food NI’s Best New Food Product, the journey of Ballylisk Cheese from concept to product has been both demanding and rewarding according to owner Dean Wright.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur with a background in the meat industry returned home to County Armagh almost a decade ago to become the fifth generation of the Wright family to work the land at Ballylisk.
Once the home of a commercial rose farm in the 1940s and 1950s, the farm’s heritage features heavily in the branding of the single herd triple cream cheese – aptly named The Triple Rose. However, the relevance of the farm isn’t simply restricted to history as it is also the main source of the milk which forms the basis of the cheese production.
Before discussing the role played by the farm in his new enterprise, Wright outlines how Ballylisk Cheese came to fruition.
“When I returned to take over Wright Farms we invested and expanded, but recent fluctuation in milk prices (in some cases up to 100 per cent) meant for an unsustainable business model. I have always taken an interest in processes and efficiencies and in, April 2015, I set about investigating a new business model.”
Wright’s investigation led him to undertake deep analysis of Northern Ireland’s dairy industry including what the milk pool in Northern Ireland was being used for, where demand was greatest and what the margin was on each individual product.
His adage of “volume is vanity but margin is sanity” led him to investigate the cheese industry further, including the increasing demand for continental-type cheeses.
He adds: “This wasn’t done in isolation. Once we identified the market gaps then we consulted heavily. Simon Dougan of the Yellow Door was instrumental in offering us guidance on what demands there were in the market and we spoke to various chefs about the type of product they would like to see us deliver.”
Next, Wright approached the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) at the Loughry College, where following investment from Invest NI, he developed the product and process with the help of their skilled staff.
“The support from CAFRE from initial concept to commercialisation work was critical in getting the project off the ground. We’re very lucky to have a place where the level of experience, standard of facility and innovation of equipment is probably one of the best in Europe and is located just 20 minutes away.”
What came out of the process was a unique product. Wright’s is the first farm business to process a milk product to cheese in Northern Ireland, a fact that would undoubtedly boost market appeal. Wright then set about building a state-of-the art, standalone facility just two miles from the family farm worth an investment of an estimated £250,000.
Asked to explain the rationale of locating Ballylisk Dairies in Portadown, he explains: “It was important to keep a separation between the businesses. The farm is crucial to production. It provides the raw material and without the quality of land, health of the cows and calibre of the milk our end product would suffer. The farm offers us traceability and control, however, in keeping the businesses separate we increase bio-security.
“The location was ideal in that it meant we could reduce the initial transport costs for the milk but also be close enough to the motorway infrastructure to provide good connectivity. On top of that there is a large population in the surrounding area which is good for labour access and being local, we’d like to contribute to that local economy and offer job creation.”
The high-end white mould cheese, which is being marketed to chefs, hoteliers and specialist outlets, is hopefully the first in a small number of the Ballylisk of Armagh range under development. Wright explains that in the coming months he aims to launch a similar blue cheese and start production of butter, with one or two more additions to the range, which he is keeping close to his chest, in the early development stage.
Initially the product is being exclusively marketed in Northern Ireland but talks are progressing on penetration of the UK market and Wright expresses his desire to see the product exported globally.
Speaking about the challenges he has faced in achieving his vision, Wright says: “Initially, my concerns were around being a newcomer to the market and how that would sit. There is an abundance of insightful help out there and in asking for that help has been the foundation of our progress.
“The other major challenges are around skills and Brexit. Given that our product is quite unique, there is a void in expertise in the labour market. Thankfully, it’s something that we’ve prepared for and have a strategy for. We appreciate the need to invest in, train and equip staff to suit our business.
“On Brexit there is very little clarity. The outcomes of Brexit will have an impact on exports, whether they are negative or positive remains to be seen. However, I believe the fact that we have a full-cycle approach, in that we have own our raw product, gives us a healthy advantage when it comes to market fluctuations.”