Enterprising farming couple steering towards success with new snack foods

Enterprising sheep farmers Alan and Wendy Dempster in Ballymoney are focused on raising awareness about the outstanding quality and taste of local lamb among consumers here by developing a variety of snack foods such as burgers and sausage rolls with the meat.

Enterprising sheep farmers Alan and Wendy Dempster in Ballymoney are focused on raising awareness about the outstanding quality and taste of local lamb among consumers here by developing a variety of snack foods such as burgers and sausage rolls with the meat.

They’ve set up a small business in a horsebox transformed into a fully-equipped mobile kitchen for tasty takeaway lamb snacks, the recipes for which were developed in collaboration with food experts at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in Cookstown, now a recognised hub of innovation for artisan food and drink products here. It’s a further example of enterprise in food production from the local farming community.

Wendy, an experienced marketer with NI’s leading food wholesaler, explains: “We had been exploring opportunities for our lamb for some time before the coronavirus outbreak led to me being furloughed. This gave me time to pick up and to expand on some of the ideas we had been discussing.

Wendy and Alan Dempster of Lamb Van with daughter Summer on the Ballymoney sheep farm

“We are both passionate about promoting the quality and taste of our lamb in a challenging market for what is an outstanding local product, one which hasn’t always gained the recognition for rich and natural flavours it deserves. Lamb has been seen as a meat for special occasion meals especially at Easter. It’s essential for an important local industry that shoppers here are encouraged to see the very real benefits of lamb, particularly in terms of health, throughout the year.

“Lamb, in addition, is essentially a grass-fed meat that’s produced sustainably and in line with measures to reduce NI’s carbon footprint in the planned Net Zero drive.”

The couple sought CAFRE’s advice and were encouraged to apply for an Innovation Voucher from Invest NI. CAFRE’s food team on the Loughry Campus supports small and medium-sized businesses innovate through the Invest NI scheme which offers £5,000 to help food companies link up with experts at colleges in Ireland such as CAFRE. Companies are able to access support, specialist knowledge and practical skills required to help promote innovation, develop new products and systems that will enable their business to grow profitably.

Wendy continues: “We wanted to promote Northern Irish Farm Quality Assured Lamb to consumers here and also to help to reduce the high volume of lamb currently exported especially from distant suppliers such as Australia and New Zealand. Our lamb, furthermore, has a low carbon footprint. We sought to achieve this by increasing sales of local lamb at home by highlighting the vast health benefits of lamb and raise awareness of the wide variety of opportunities to enjoy this locally produced meat.  

“This meant challenging long-held perceptions of people her that lamb, often seen as a fatty meat, is only for special occasions such as Easter. We want to see fresh, local lamb being introduced as a weekly meat of choice. Our snacks, furthermore, are very low in fat.”

Increasing awareness, they both recognised, would require them “to reach out to potential consumers”.

“We had to take the meat to events and other places involving local people. And we knew we had to come up with lamb dishes that could be cooked easily on-site by us for people to enjoy,” she continues.

They settled on hand-held lamb snacks freshly cooked in their Lamb Van, the identity chosen for their novel mobile kitchen.

CAFRE Technologist Clare Campbell helped the farming couple develop snacks that could be sold from the Lamb Van. Market research was conducted and ideas researched before they started to formulate original recipes. Once the ideas were agreed between the farming couple and CAFRE work started in the college’s kitchen. After various trials, tastings and tweaks, six delicious lamb dishes were agreed. 

Support was also provided on packaging types, equipment required and ingredient sourcing that enabled the entrepreneurs to ‘hit the ground running’. One of the initial locations for the Lamb Van was at the popular Jam at the Doorstep, a successful farm shop run by farmer’s wife Amanda Hanna in Armoy, near the Webster’s farm.

“The support we got from CAFRE was amazing,” Wendy continues. “We worked with Clare and she provided help and advice every step of the way. The mentoring, guidance and knowledge made available to us was priceless. Invest NI’s innovation voucher made this all possible and helped us on the road to our new products. Without the help we received from CAFRE and Invest NI there is no way we would be ready with a range of novel lamb products for market at this stage. We plan to apply for second voucher to enable us to create another novel product from our farm. We’ve already carried out some preparatory work on what will be unique to NI.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news on this free-to-read site, I am asking you to also please purchase a copy of our newspaper whenever you are able to do so.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspaper when you can safely.

You can also enjoy unlimited access to the best news from across Northern Ireland and the UK by subscribing to newsletter.co.uk

With a digital subscription, you can read more than five articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.

Thank you