Food-prepping family business is prepared for any eventuality

Waterfall Farm thrived for years until Dunnes Stores ended their contract, but the Martins bounced back
Food-prepping family business is prepared for any eventuality

Most farms have a scent. On a dairy farm, it’s fresh milk; on a crop farm, it’s the stored grain. But on Waterfall Farms, it’s different again.

Here, just a few miles west of Cork City, it’s the smell of freshly chopped vegetables, as if from a busy kitchen.

The yard is quiet, but through the glass doors of the big sheds people can be seen at work.

At the top of a long, straight avenue, an ancient beech tree and the traditional country house mark this as a farm with history, as having a story to tell.

When Declan and Rosemary Martin moved here in 1967, there was little more than a run-down house, a stone outbuilding and the land. The youngest boy from a farm at Coolyduff, Inniscarra, Declan had to make the break on his own.

From a Department of Agriculture adviser, he learned about vegetable growing, and put down crops of carrots, parsnips and turnips. It was tough going, trying to make ends meet.

Declan delivered into the small shops of Cork City from a trailer hitched to his tractor. To supplement the farm income, he sold sheds for a local company.

In 1972, he was elected president of Macra na Feirme, and this raised his profile. People recognised him from his appearances in the media, and his easy nature made him welcome on people’s doors.

In 1980, he walked into Dunnes Stores on Patrick Street, Cork City, carrying a few heads of lettuce. Not many farms were growing lettuce on a large scale, and Declan had become successful with his crops.

As lettuce doesn’t stay fresh for long, and doesn’t travel well, he needed to find a local buyer to make his crop profitable. “What do you think of these fellows?” Declan asked to the manager.

Dunnes liked what Declan was growing. A contract was signed for supply of Waterfall Farms lettuce, to which they added onions, carrots, turnips and parsnips.

Those were the days when branches of the large multiples had autonomy, and stocked from local suppliers. So began a very busy time for Waterfall Farms.

Within a couple of years, they had four trucks on the road, delivering produce six days a week around Cork. They employed 15 staff, working long hours filling the orders.

On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, they would make four trips a day to the stores, and Dunnes accounted for 90% of their business.

To keep a steady supply, they bought from other local growers, keeping those farms busy, too.

As with all good things, the contract eventually ended. In 1998, Dunnes switched to central distribution, and the Martins were let go. They hadn’t done anything wrong; they’d worked hard to complete every order, but the bean counters now wanted what they thought was a more efficient system.

Before the ending of the contract, a crate of Martin’s turnips could go to Dublin and sit in a depot, before being shipped to Galway, or even back to Cork. This went against their ethos of fresh vegetables delivered daily.

Staff numbers were cut, though they kept on as many as they could. The other local farms that had been supplying them were left without an outlet, too; it was tough times for Waterfall Farms and surrounding areas. The Martins’ two sons, Nigel and Trevor, noticed the dramatic turnaround.

“It was quite the change around here,” says Nigel, “We’d grown up with trucks in and out the gate all day, staff coming and going at all times. We learned the hard way about putting all our eggs in one basket.”

The contract finished mid-season, but they had fields full of crops.

Ploughing the fresh vegetables back into the earth wasn’t contemplated.

Declan bought a small company that was supplying ready-prepped vegetables to a few restaurants in the city. Every vegetable the Martins had in the ground was put to use.

Business was strong, and grew quickly.

They converted the sheds from storage to production units, developing a top-class facility to Bord Bia standards. The Martins were back in operation, but now they were doing it all from start to finish. Ploughing, sowing, and cropping, before peeling, cutting, slicing and dicing.

Rosemary, a great cook, began to build working relationships with the chefs in the restaurants.

She’d show them how to cook what was in season, how to plan a menu using local vegetables, and was always trying new methods at home on her Aga.

That hard work paid off, and today they have more than 50 establishments on the books. Working so closely with their clients means they have never had to employ a sales rep. This has also kept the Martins as the face of the operation.

Declan is now retired, but Nigel and Trevor still run Waterfall Farms as the family business that their father ran before them.

“People call up and ask us to send out a price list,” Trevor says,” but we say ‘no, come out and see us first, see what we’re about’.”

In a few short years, the Martin family has grown the food-prepping business into a vibrant enterprise that employs 15 people.

When their backs were against the wall, they didn’t fold, but got on with what they knew best.

Today, they stock Super-Valu shops from Clonakilty to Glanmire, and the phone never stops ringing. Their vans are on the road again, supplying bars and restaurants within a 50-mile radius of the farm.

There is even a small contract with Dunnes Stores for supply of swedes.

“We never stop. The year goes very fast for us,” says Nigel.

The polytunnels Declan erected in the 1980s are still going, and more have been added over the years. There, they propagate the seeds for the coming season, giving them a head start before planting-out.

Trevor and Nigel showed me a crop of 5,000 lettuce seeds they had just planted, which will be in the fields soon, and in salads by the summer. Other salad leaves and herbs are also grown in the tunnels, almost all-year-round.

From seeing the polytunnels, the fields and the production unit at full tilt, I know what he means.

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