Tuesday 18 December 2018 11:57:24 PM

Killyleagh Man Eddie Rea Has Green Fingers
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Killyleagh man Eddie Rea has found out he has green fingers.

Although he is 78-years old, he is just sprouting with life and is full of enthusiasm for a recent business project that he has developed. He is working on a business model to run a ‘small’ vegetable and fruit market garden that is open to the public writes Jim Masson

A number of years ago Eddie as a successful businessman ran a children’s ware factory company in Dromara with a factory in Hilltown. He employed at the peak up to 800 full and part-time workers. From a standing start he built up an annual turnover of £6million a year. But unfortunately, cheap clothes’ imports affected the sustainability of the business in the longer term.

Killyleagh businessman Eddie Rea is delighted at progress with his market garden selling to the public through Connoisseur Vegetables. 

And Eddie was also a local councillor for a number of years in the legacy Down District Council and served as Chairman at one point.

Now today he has used his entrepreneurial skills again to develop a new business idea… ‘Connoisseur Vegetables’.  growing vegetables and fruit. He said: “I am really enjoying the experience of growing vegetables and fruit. It is keeping me active with a real interest in life. And I get to meet lots of happy customers who come to the farm shop to buy our produce.

“I set up the business in 2011 on the farm not too far from Delamont Country Park. Initially my son Jamie was keen to bring the ideas forward and run a farm growing flowers on the shore of Strangford Lough. But eventually we settled on the idea that we can run a profitable business on the back of the 35 acre farm. Traditional farming at this scale currently is not very profitable so we decided to give that a miss. But we are just using at the moment about four acres and we have plans to expand in the future.

Eddie Rea at his hazel tree plantation.

“A farm this size is not really sustainable using conventional farming methods these days. So we looked for another model and basically we are trying to replicate what we did in the clothes business years ago. Our aim is to create an experience for the customer so that they feel as though they are directly in contact with the business from its design to the delivery of our special seasonal vegetable and fruit pre-packed boxes.”

I took a walk around the ‘farm’ with Eddie and everywhere there were signs of an Autumn harvest with a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables. Of course there were plenty of weeds growing everywhere but Eddie explained that he was almost totally organic.

There is certainly a buzz around Eddie’s farm.

Eddie’s pride and joy is his tomato polytunnel where he selects seeds to grow for the following year. The plants are watered by an automatic irrigation system that feeds water to the roots of the plants making this process more efficient. He said: “If you spray the water on to the tomatoes, much of it will evaporate so this is the best way I’ve found.

“I’ve developed a type of tomato I’ve called ‘Heidi’s Delight’ after my grand-daughter. These are delicious plum tomatoes with a real, sweet, full-on taste. People ask for them now by names. And we have Tabitha’s Delight, named after another grand-daughter, another tasty variety. I’ll be making seed selections for next year soon for these. We have the usual varieties such as Ailsa Craig and the beef Marmande.

“Altogether there are about 40+ types of vegetables and fruit that we grow. We don’t really supply to the catering trade. Our market is suppling local homes with vegetables and we are as close to being organic as we can.”

A short walk away and we arrived at a new development. Eddie has planted out over 220 hazel trees this year and this includes four different varieties of hazel.  He said: “There is a world shortage of hazel nuts on-going and this will mature in a couple of years to a very useful strand in the business. We have mixed some hardwood trees through them such as chestnut.”

Weed control: early 2019 onions, garlic and broad beans protected from weeds by black polythene covers.

“And tapering for hundreds of yards towards Strangford Lough we have rows of onions, garlic and broad beans that will provide early crops for 2019. They were prepared with black polythene strips between the planted rows to keep the weeds down. That is our main method of weed control.”

Eddie looked over his few acres and explained: “There is a Canadian writer who wrote a book called ‘The Market Gardener. He said that you could make £50,000 from running a market garden on one and a half acres in size. This is certainly a challenge and I am very keen to build up on this business model and develop ideas of my own.

“Basically we have to cycle the planting in a three year method where plants are not extracting particular nutrients from the soil. It is very interesting work and I think we now have it sorted out – we can now see the woods through the trees.

“In the potato field we are growing varieties such as Blues, Dunbar Standards but out potato production is still at early stages. We lost a lot of root vegetables this year because of the drought. We have now a system set up to help provide water to the planted areas, and we have a well which also provides a supply of water.”

As we examined the incubation units and sheds, Eddie explained that his plan is to have supplies of different vegetables mainly at different stages so that through the season he has an extended supply line. So veg such as carrots, parsnips, beetroot will be planted periodically to ensure he always has a supply through the Spring, Summer and into the Autumn months. He also has winter plants such as Brussels sprouts and curly kale growing so there is always a seasonal supply of fresh vegetables.

Eddie Rea tries out one of his apples.

Eddie said: “I was in Spain a few years ago and came across Padron peppers. They are small and very tasty. I bough a packet of seeds and have been growing them since then with great success. I’m probably one of the very few producers in the whole of Ireland.”

The many old farm buildings have been well cannibalised into growing and storage areas and we entered one set of buildings where cucumbers were hanging ready, the last crop of the season. Then we came across an area prepared with finely sieved soil. “This is for tea plants”, explained Eddie.” There is a lady in Portaferry who specialises in growing tea and she asked me if I had some extra space as her growing areas were fully used up. It all adds to the interest of the market garden. You certainly meet some interesting people.”

Around the ‘farm’ are a selection of berries growing including blackberry, raspberry, red currants, blackcurrants, gooseberries, which add variety and colour to the already heady pallette of greens.

Eddie pictured with one of his home delivery boxes.

Fruit growing to Eddie is something he is very keen to develop and to date has planted four varieties of plum trees, and even has an apricot and a peach tree in sheltered areas. And tucked somewhere in the forest of green are pear trees in four different varieties again giving a supply from early until late in the season and some pears are grown for their storage qualities. And a quiet humming from behind the wall beside the fig tree revealed another of Eddie’s passions… bee keeping.

There were three bee hives and buzzing productively. “I really enjoy keeping bees. Unfortunately I lost many of the bees at the start of the year because of bad weather, but they have re-established themselves well and I am now up-and-running in honey production. They are quite a gentle breed of bee which is pleasant to work with.”

But Eddie’s pride and joy is his four-year old apple orchard. He has eight different varieties of eating apple tree thriving. The early variety of Beauty of Bath is one of his favourites, and he also gets excellent crops from his James Grieve and Lord Lambourne varieties. So again Eddie has planted out his orchard with trees that will produce apples over the season, and provide good storage apples into the autumn. And not an apple is wasted. Eddie also presses apples and makes a very tasty apple juice which can be bought in his farm shop along with jams, pickles and honey and of course, a wide selection of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Eddie said: “This has been a very pleasant business venture and so far everything seems to be doing well. We have a steady run of customers who come back which is very encouraging. And we supply boxes of vegetables to local homes.

“It is a very exciting time and this business is good for the local economy, good for the environment, and certainly good for me. I’ve never felt better!”