If you look closely at a packet of Tesco leeks you will see the letters ‘RL’ printed beside the Taste of NI stamp.
It will not mean much to many shoppers, but to farmer Roy Lyttle it means an awful lot.
As Tesco’s sole NI supplier of leeks, Mr Lyttle’s initials appear on almost every packet of leeks you’ll buy in one of its stores in the Province.
Being virtually untraceable via the packaging is not something that bothers him too much: “Of course it would be nice to have a big logo on the product but I fully understand how the Tesco model works.
“The key is that local farmers are supplying their produce in big stores like Tesco.”
Mr Lyttle, who runs a 150-acre vegetable farm on the outskirts of Newtownards, said: “Supplying Tesco would account for around 60% of our business. It’s a two way street in that they want to have local suppliers. It’s helping us and it’s helping them.
“Tesco has been very loyal to us. We’ve supplied them now for the 21 years they’ve been in Northern Ireland.”
He explained how that deal was struck: “Stewarts supermarket was taken over by Tesco, that’s how they got their foothold in Northern Ireland. It gave them a base of 32 stores overnight. We were a supplier to Stewarts at that time through Avondale Foods. Tesco cut out the middle man and went direct to the farmers and suppliers.
“That’s how we became direct suppliers of Tesco. As well as leeks we also supply organic leeks and scallions.”
He added: “There’s about six weeks of the year – the end of May, all of June, and the first week or two of July – that are quite difficult times to have local leeks, but the other 10 months of the year you’ll go in and they’ll have ‘RL’ on them.”
Gwen McKee of Fresh Fields is another Co Down farmer who supplies veg to Tesco. Her carrots, for example, are rebranded as Redmere Farms.
She said: “We’re a family farm, but all of our business is with major supermarkets.
“It’s very important for our business, the volumes are what drives our business.
“We are the only parsnip grower in Northern Ireland on a commercial scale. With carrots there’s a few of us left. It’s a dying breed. If we didn’t have the supermarkets there would be no point in doing it.
“We do everything. We sow the seed, grow the crop, wash it, grade it, put it through our own pack house, then deliver it to the Tesco depot ready to roll into crates.”
Fresh Fields, which is based near Scrabo, employs between 45 to 50 people in peak season.
Mrs McKee said: “Our busy period is from July right through to April, then we go down to fewer when we don’t have a local crop.
“Everyone we employ is from the local area so we make a big difference in Comber and Newtownards.”
She added: “I would love to have packaging which promoted the Northern Ireland product more, and we did used to, but it was costing us a lot more. I can see how the generic packaging is more efficient with a smaller ‘NI’ label on it given that we are such small volumes compared to mainland producers.
“The way to promote local produce I think is the shelf-edge promotion and in-store banners. To promote the growers at the point of sale rather than on the pack is a more efficient way of doing it.”
• In 2016 Tesco created a number of fictional farms such as Boswell Farms and Redmere Farms to brand some of its farm produce.
Although it was not the only supermarket to do so, it came under criticism as some of the produce branded with British sounding farm names was imported.
Tesco said its products are sourced from a selection of farms and growers, from small, family-run farms to large scale operations, that meet their standards.
Research commissioned by Tesco NI found that on average, in a main grocery shop, local products now account for almost six out of 10 items.