Slemish Market Garden, Ballymena – BelfastTelegraph.co.uk

“We were fine here with a very small boutique, and it was just fine, and overnight we just didn’t know what hit us,” says Frank McCooke. “We went from just cruising around 30 miles per hour to 150 miles per hour and stayed there.”

rank talks about the rapid transformation of Slemish Market Garden, the business he co-owns with his wife Linda and son Matthew, into an award-winning greengrocer as a direct result of the pandemic.

“Looking back, no one knew what was going on,” Frank says. “We were as scared as anyone else, but we just got the family together and said we had to go out there and give the community what it needed.

“We gave up on growing the 40% of a market garden that would be things like trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, hanging baskets and vegetable transplants, because it was pretty obvious that wasn’t what who should have.

“We never intended to be greengrocers, but it turns out that we are very good at it. We have found our niche, but I can tell you that we are first and foremost producers. We grow everything we can.

The McCooke family are well known traders in the Ballymena area, their trading interests ranging from gravestones to coal. The love for local produce was already there, with Frank’s father, Stephen McCooke, saying his success as the famous Irish athlete running the 10,000 meters at the 1948 London Olympics was fueled by local beets.

However, it was Linda who brought real passion to grow in the family. “We met when we were 15, and all she talked about was wanting to have a smallholding and grow vegetables and sell to the public,” Frank says. Half-jokingly, he bought Linda her first polytunnel as a wedding present, and the seeds of Slemish Market Garden were sown.

The business has existed since 2001. It took two years to clear what was then a fallow site in the Ecos Center park, restore it to expand and build the first store. “It was a labor of love, we really jumped in and built it all ourselves,” says Frank.

Matthew graduated from Greenmount and while completing his Craft Gardener certificate at the National Trust for Scotland’s Threave Gardens he met his wife Lori, now a lecturer in horticulture at Greenmount.

Staffing is just the three co-owners, with other family members stepping in to help if needed. “We’ve often said here that we’re like a three-legged milking stool, take one leg off and it all falls apart,” Frank says.

“We shut down at 5 p.m. and people want us to stay open late, but they don’t understand that nothing comes out of this field on its own. We take a break between 5 and 6 p.m., then we continue until what needs to be done is done.

“I only see a bright future for this, but I just wish we were 30 years younger. We’re not against falling asleep in the barn.

Before the pandemic, the business had already branched out with the Slemish Market Supper Club. “Supper Club is a beautiful thing,” Frank says. “Chef Rob Curley lives across the hedge, and he came over one day and said, ‘I have this idea of ​​a dinner party in the garden.

“We made a table for 20 and dined here on a lovely summer evening and it was just stunning. We decided after that to do it once a month and it got a bit monstrous. It was so popular, it was always oversubscribed and really raised the profile of the company. »

PANDEMIC PIVOT

The McCookes grow about 80% of the produce they sell at retail, both on the acreage around the store and on their own properties. Whereas before the pandemic the family produced more than it sold, it is now struggling to keep up with demand.

“We had just gotten it the way we wanted it, and everything was lovely and everything was falling into place, and then Covid hit,” says Frank. “There are times when this place gets out of control and we think, what did we do, but there’s really no choice but to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.”

With social distancing and the increased volume of shoppers proving too much for the original store, a new store was quickly built and the parking lot expanded.

“We launched in November 2020 and in December we sold more vegetables than we had all year,” says Frank. “Everything had just changed and now, after this past Christmas, we think we’ll need twice the size for next year, but we can’t handle it all.”

Dealing with a much larger volume of customers has been an overall pleasant experience marred only by a few bad apples, Frank says.

“People management was something we never thought we’d have to deal with,” he says. “We are very lucky because I would say 90% of our customers are the salt of the earth. We’re the old-school type, we love people and we love talking to people.

“But there’s a small percentage of people who really piss you off, because they won’t play the game, they won’t line up and they won’t wear face masks. They won’t understand that there are people who come to our store who are extremely sick, and you try to reason with them but they are being unreasonable.

A visitor even walked in and stole toilet paper from the property. “You have to laugh,” Frank said. “Fortunately, we’re all blessed with an insane sense of humor.”

On the other hand, when recent storms wreaked havoc on the site, destroying a 20-year-old polytunnel, the McCooke family were very touched and touched when a number of customers showed up the next day to help clean up and rebuilding. .

LOCAL PRODUCT

“In Northern Ireland, everything has to be done under polytunnels,” says Frank. “It’s the ferocity of the weather when it changes, you just might lose entire crops.”

Another benefit of indoor growing is the potential to push the boundaries of seasonality. “We just keep sowing and if it sprouts, it sprouts and it doesn’t sprout, it goes to the geese,” Frank says. “It’s not lost.”

Farming is kept as low-tech as possible with, for example, a falcon kite being used to prevent blackbirds from plucking garlic.

Customers come from all over Northern Ireland for the quality of produce, which range from mainstay potatoes and root vegetables and soups to exotic chillies and mushrooms.

While local fruits and vegetables are undeniably the star of the show in the shop, they sit alongside a wide range of local artisan products such as Nua Kombucha, Natural Umber Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, Burren Balsamics, Broighter Gold , Long Meadow Farm, Baladi Foods, Erin Grove and Irish Black Butter, to name a few.

Slemish Market Garden also supplies its own eggs and honey, produces juices, chutneys and jams, smokes garlic, cheese and meat, and acts as a collection point for meat orders from Rowandale Farm in Rathkenny and fish from Mega Katch in Portavogie.

“People tell us there’s nothing like our eggs,” Frank says. “We really care about the chickens, we take care of them but they don’t get anything different than elsewhere, it’s just that there’s a lot of green waste.”

Having always grown up biodynamically, Frank says a lot of customers going through chemotherapy, for example, or just looking to reduce chemicals in their diet, frequent the store.

Clients seek out Linda’s advice, from health remedies such as ‘honeygar’, hot water with a teaspoon of raw honey and apple cider vinegar with the mother, to general cooking tips and receipts. The admiration with which Frank speaks of Linda is heartwarming.

It’s usually the older generation who are more set in their ways and need to be coaxed into trying new things, Frank says. “Strawberries are important to us, but our biggest crop is squash,” he says. “We have acres and acres of gourds and whenever they’re ready we mount them and place them all around the workshop and yard.

“Trying to tell people it’s not a photo opportunity, it’s one of the best foods ever, was an uphill struggle, but now people are coming back and saying how awesome the squash was. “

While only a small amount of the shop’s stock is imported, such as Spain’s top-selling Bee Mercy range of raw honey, post-Brexit seed imports are a concern for the company. “We have enough seeds for us for next year, and really hope that our loyal MPs can find a solution and stop fighting,” Frank says. “Things have to be simplified or producers like us are going to go to the wall.”

The family was overwhelmed by the Slow Food distinction. “If you consider the number of small vegetable shops in the UK, the fact that we’re being called out is phenomenal,” he says. “Every time Paula McIntyre called me, at first I thought she was taking the micky.

“It’s definitely a niche market, we’ll never be able to cater to the masses, but people are really behind buying local. It used to be that market gardens and agricultural stores and even small street greengrocers were more or less a relic of the past but now it’s the way to go and people are looking for that quality that you get from pulling things straight of the ground.

Building on the success of the business with another store in central Ulster is under consideration. “But the thing is, I don’t want to grow too quickly either,” Frank says. “It took us a lifetime to get here.”

SLOW FOOD NORTHERN IRELAND

Slow Food is a grassroots global movement with thousands of members around the world who combine the enjoyment of food with a commitment to community and the environment. It was founded in 1989 in Italy. Slow Food Northern Ireland is run by Paula McIntyre.

Contact: [email protected]

Terri S. Tomasini