Roy Lyttle has grown his arable enterprise from nothing and it has now become Northern Ireland’s largest grower of leeks.
Roy Lyttle started flexing his green fingers when he left school. After leaving Regent House Grammar School, he had worked at an estate agent’s for all of two weeks before realising he didn’t want to work in an office. His father got him a job with a neighbouring farmer running a mixed farm with beef cattle, cereals and potatoes.
In 1978, Roy started growing vegetables in his spare time on his family’s 0.8-hectare (two-acre) plot at their home at the head of Strangford Lough, just outside Newtownards, Co Down.
Roy, who farms with his wife Sheila, a former teacher, and son Alexander, says: “I sold to local independent shops and the demand grew every year. I was mostly supplying them with scallions, leeks, lettuce and cabbages.
“I ended up renting more and more land as I went along and this is really where the business started from, growing more to meet demand.
“Sheila and I bought our house and two acres just before we got married back in 1984.”
This initial land has now grown to 60ha (150 acres).
Although they actually rent 100ha (250 acres), only 60ha (150 acres) are planted at any one time and 12ha (30 acres) of those have Soil Association organic status.
The Roy Lyttle business is now a thriving family concern and the biggest grower of leeks in Northern Ireland.
The company has a range of other crops running alongside leeks, including parsley, herb celery and spring onions as well as a range of organic produce.
About 95 per cent of the rented land is within a three-mile radius of the family home on the Ards Peninsula, which boasts a micro-climate helping it become renowned for growing vegetables and plants.
The light, stony soil is ideal for leeks, parsley, spring onions and herb celery but not so good for root crops such as carrots and parsnips.
Roy says: “We do grow a few of them but I prefer to stick to our main crops because they work for us commercially. Each to his own, I suppose.”
By far the biggest impact on the business was the arrival of the multi-nationals in Northern Ireland.
Tesco came to Northern Ireland in 1997, having taken over the Stewarts supermarket chain which stocked much of the produce grown by Roy.
Before this, the Lyttles were selling to local independent outlets, wholesalers and from a farm shop at home, which they opened in 1991.
The couple had an important decision to make about whether to stick with the broad range of products and retail from the farm shop or concentrate on increasing volumes of particular lines and go with Tesco.
Because of the favourable climate conditions, light soils and availability of land, they decided to become a direct supplier to a multi-national, but it was a slog to get to that point of supply.
Roy says: “Along with many other growers, we had a lot of work to do. We needed to get up to speed with all of the certification required to comply with food production standards and meet specifications set by the supermarkets.”
The packhouse has so far been the family’s biggest investment. The original 1997 facility was doubled in area in 2000 and has recently been extended again and refurbished to accommodate the growing business. Tesco continues to be the biggest Roy Lyttle customer.
Roy says: “Tesco is very supportive of the simplicity of our operation. We have transparent traceability from seed to the finished product which is packed and supplied directly to depot.
“The short supply chain is becoming increasingly important in an effort to build on consumer confidence.”
The number of employees within the business has also risen from 10 to 25 in the last five years and Roy has learned to play to his strengths and delegate the rest.
He says: “It was a big challenge to get up to speed with all of the accreditations and we now employ technologists to deal with all of it. You could spend all day filling in forms and keeping up with red tape.
“We find you always have to be one step ahead of legislation, because new rules come in all the time and you have to have a particular type of personality to be able to deal with it all.
“We prefer to concentrate on the product and make sure we keep growing quality vegetables of a consistent standard. Everyone should do what they are best at.”
Roy’s wife Sheila says finding a market for all the leeks harvested is another focus.
She says: “If we harvest from field 20, for example, we endeavour to end up selling everything.
“For Tesco, we do: a high specification, pre-packed leek which is trimmed to specific size; a convenience pack; a loose leek; and an everyday value pack which is the same basic product but not trimmed to as high a specification and may have the odd blemish. It all depends on the way it is trimmed and processed.
“Leeks are also sold to a processing company called Avondale Foods, based in Lurgan, Co Armagh, where they go for soups and salads.
“It doesn’t matter as much to Avondale what the leeks look like because they are going to be cut up anyway. What matters is they taste good.”
Avondale in turn sells its products to M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons and Tesco, and it also takes parsley and herb celery from Roy.
Herb celery is peculiar to Northern Ireland where it is also known as ‘soup celery’ and there are only two other growers in the area.
The remaining 12ha (30 acres) are certified to Soil Association standard and produce organic leeks, Savoy, white, red, January King and green cabbage, packed for Tesco, Belfast and Dublin.
Organic potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli, carrots, parsnips and swedes are also supplied to several local box schemes and independent retailers.
With various crops on the go at any one time, Roy has implemented a wide crop rotation system.
He says: “We have a policy in which we don’t use the same ground for the same crop more than once every four years.
“It cuts down on the amount of plant protection products we need to use in the conventional system too.
“We monitor the use of chemicals and have a policy to reduce usage year-on-year, so the amount of herbicide and pesticide we use would be minimal.
“This is something we have learned from organic farming and getting the Tesco Nurture accreditation.”
A neighbouring farmer also benefits from the Lyttles’ crop rotation scheme following the decision to ‘rest’ land as and when required.
Roy says: “We let land to him if we want to give the land a break from vegetable crops. He will sow barley or even sow it down in grass.
This is why we have the control of the 250 acres but only plant 150.”
With the area naturally low in rainfall, the use of nitrogen is reduced and, although naturally high in phosphates, Roy still adds sulphate of potash to the conventional crops.
These days, Roy is in control of planning, crop records and marketing, while Sheila takes care of administration, recruitment, HR and accounts.
Son Alexander finished his foundation degree in horticulture at Greenmount College in June 2012 and looks after the agronomy of the crops and plant raising. He is planning to develop the Roy Lyttle brand and hopes to extend the range of vegetables supplied to Tesco.
The business employs an average of 20 staff in the winter months, rising in the planting season to about 30.
Roy says: “Leeks and scallions are labour-intensive crops and we tend to split the workforce into harvesting and packhouse teams.
“Some staff have been with us for more than 25 years and have a great understanding and appreciation of the standards we must consistently achieve.
“They also act as mentors to the seasonal agricultural workers who come here for summer when we are at the height of the scallion season and are planting leeks.”
Sheila puts her teaching qualifications to good use by hosting visits for schoolchildren and youth groups at the farm in an effort to connect the next generation with the whole food production process.
She says: “The consumers of tomorrow need to understand that many locally based, subsidiary industries benefit from the growing, harvesting, preparation, packing and delivering of locally grown vegetables.”
When they are not embroiled in planning, planting, harvesting and marketing, the Lyttles admit they like their down time.
Roy and Sheila are keen participators in charity sporting events and past achievements include the New York marathon and various cycling challenges.
Roy and Alexander have also recently been to Uganda with the Fields of Life charity to help with a well-drilling rig project.
Sheila offers her time in voluntary work with local youth groups and her choir singing has seen her perform at St Pauls Chapel at Ground Zero in New York, The Royal Albert Hall and most recently at St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
It is clear Sheila believes in having a decent work and life balance as the two end up indirectly complementing each other.
She says: “I think it is important to do what you enjoy doing. If you do, it usually means you will do better.”