A Northern Ireland vegetable and arable farm that processes its own produce for direct sale experienced a 4000% sales boost forcibly generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Hamilton family run their onfarm business called Mash Direct just a few miles south of Belfast that grows a variety of vegetables and packages them pre-cooked for delivery to its network of retail outlets.

Although the processing business was started back in 2004, the farm dates back to the 1800s and has been handed down six generations to be currently run by Martin, his wife Tracey and their sons Jack and Lance.

Boosted by declining vegetable prices in the United Kingdom the Hamiltons first saw a niche in the market to add value to their own produce by starting to process vegetables on their own farm, thus the birth of Mash Direct.

Today the Hamiltons farm 1400 acres (566 hectares) of vegetables on their own farm and also contract grow another 1500 acres (607ha) with 52 other farmers to ensure they have year-long supply to meet demand.

All the vegetables are cooked to perfection using specially designed steam cookers on the farm to ensure that delicious taste and texture of homemade food.

Suitable for microwave or oven heating the Mash Direct range is available to retail, food service and food manufacturing throughout the UK, Ireland, Middle East and beyond.

Jack is chief operating officer while Lance assumes the role of sales director. Jack said Covid-19 prompted a huge spike in demand for their produce which saw the farm start its own online shop selling boxes of Mash Direct products with free delivery to consumers’ homes.

“At this moment we have 55 products made here at Mash Direct including our latest Cauliflower Bites which we just launched at the end of February,” Jack said.

“As a sixth-generation family farm, our heritage was in delivering vegetables directly to the door. In the last few months the need for more simple processes has meant that we have returned to this, albeit with a modern twist by using e-commerce.

“In the first few weeks of the pandemic, our sales rocketed by 4000% and we had to employ three additional people to help out and ensure that we didn’t have disappointed customers.

“We then rolled out the Feed the Heroes campaign to deliver boxes directly to NHS key workers and sent over 2000 packs this way. This meant that the NHS staff were able to pick up boxes after their shifts at the hospital without having to brave the huge queues in stores.

“While the volumes have dropped off slightly as things return to a new version of normal, our e-commerce sales are still going strong and have provided a fantastic way for our biggest fans to receive our new products before anyone else,” he said.

For the past 16 years the Hamilton family has been on a roller coaster ride with Mash Direct and that high has prompted the popular agrifood business to embark on a major expansion programme backed up with a £10 million (NZ$19.5M) fund supplied by HSBC UK Bank.

Mash Direct has experienced significant growth since its inception and is turning over £18.5m (NZ$36m) a year. However there is room for further expansion thanks to new markets overseas and a desire by the company to make its processing more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

“As we have continued to grow, our supply base has grown with us as we support farms across Northern Ireland to supply the Mash Direct range to local and export markets,” Jack said.

“In total, we now have 240 staff working with us and are developing a new skills programme to further develop the careers of our team here,” he said.

With over 20 Great Taste Awards to date, the Mash Direct range can be found in numerous retail outlets including major supermarket chains as well as other independent stores.

“We currently export to a wide variety of markets both close and far away from home. You can find Mash Direct products on the shelves today in Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Spain, Hong Kong and the United States as well as in the UK and Ireland.”

As part of the expansion plan new solar and wind energy machinery will be installed along with a new wastewater treatment facility, helping to future-proof the business by reducing its carbon footprint and making the overall plant more sustainable.

Mash Direct will also increase its capacity for growth by adding new production lines to its industrial kitchen so that it can produce new dishes and increase production capacity.

The business will add a new onion peeler that will free up space in its peeling area and is also investing in robotics and enterprise management software.

“We are investing in our people and our plant to meet additional demand for the Mash Direct range. New markets as well as growth in our existing markets have meant that we need to expand and we aim to do this in the most sustainable way, both environmentally and for our people,” Jack said.

“This means that we are investing in wind and solar energy as well as a new wastewater treatment facility.

“More and more customers are asking for our new ranges such as our Beer Battered Chips, Beer Battered Onion Rings and our salad lines and this means that we need to grow our team and our plant.

“Our energy at the moment is taken from the grid and we plan to diversify into more renewable sources in the near future. The first phase of this will be to introduce solar and wind energy to Mash Direct and we will be commissioning a Sustainability Report to understand what else we can improve here.

“By investing in greener technologies, we will reduce our carbon footprint. As a sixth generation family farm, the sustainability of the farm is very important to us as we wish to hand it down from generation to generation,” he added.