Pat and Catherine McKeever were delighted to see the buds beginning to burst into blossom last week in their apple orchards near Loughgall in Co Armagh. The floral bursts heralded the start of another very busy season for the couple and their family.
The husband and wife team own Long Meadow Farm, probably our most innovative and successful apple grower and cider processor; a real family business which has blossomed over the past seven years.
What the entrepreneurial family has achieved is to turn the apples, the orchards and the modern processing operation into a ‘must see’ destination for locals and especially tourists from many parts of the world interested in our food and drink. It’s become a thriving business which is a key player in the local cider industry and has won a string of awards for its products, including substantial marketing support in a competition run by George Best Belfast City Airport.
They founded the craft cider and juice business in 2012 on the back of a family heritage of growing applies over more than 50 years. Son Peter and other family members are all active in the business.
The McKeevers delight in showing visitors how the apples, including iconic EU accredited Armagh Bramleys, are grown and processed meticulously into wonderfully tasty ciders and fruit juices. Long Meadow grows and harvests apples from a total of 120 acres, 30 of which are on the home farm.
They have an outstanding track record in developing original ciders including the first vintage matured here in whiskey casks.
“Food tourism is a dynamic market opportunity,” explains Catherine McKeever. “People are now keen to know where their food and drink comes from and to talk to the people producing it. It’s all about quality, taste, heritage and provenance now. We’ve got the facilities for tours and the orchards which people have long been interested in seeing, especially at apple blossom time. Sustaining the growth in tourism from markets such as the US requires an expansion in attractions that will capture their imagination and bring them back,” she says.
“It made sense to throw open our doors and welcome visitors interested in our ciders in particular. We’ve also developed this by creating a wide programme of activities to attract visitors and to give them plenty to see and enjoy when they come through our gates. And it’s proving an outstanding success,” she adds.
In addition to a hugely successful business producing and exporting award-winning ciders, apple juices and apple cider vinegar - currently in-trend with health conscious shoppers - they have created an imaginative programme of Apple Blossom Tours, food events, workshops and even art classes in the orchards.
Long Meadow’s colourful Apple Blossom Madness Weekend last month, for instance, included a unique flower arranging class.
Visitors also enjoyed cider and/or fresh apple juice with Catherine McKeever’s delicious apple tarts. They’ve also opened their doors for meetings and corporate events. ‘Art in the Orchard’ offered painting workshops for aspiring artists with a renowned painter.
Their expertise in marketing and merchandising is seen in the craft candles scented with apple fragrance developed in collaboration with Kimaria in Portadown for corporate gifts.
Other recent innovations included a spectacular sound and light show in the orchards. Ireland’s first-ever ‘son et lumiere’ event - ‘Treeluminations’ - drew hundreds of people to the orchards on four frosty February nights.
“They promoted it successfully as a fascinating and different event for St Valentine’s Night in particular. Visitors enjoyed the lights and sampled the ciders, juices and, of course, homemade apple tarts.
“Treeluminations was a fantastic opportunity to see the raw, naked beauty of the trees transformed and illuminated by light and sound without foliage or fruit,” Catherine explains. “I think we all have a vision of apple orchards complete with apple blossom or an abundance of fruit, this illumination event highlighted the orchards in a totally different perspective, a raw, natural, resting state before the cycle of growth begins.
“We are aiming to raise the profile of agri-food tourism in Armagh and we hope to make this an annual event because it widens the appeal of the orchard off season and our products among locals and tourists,” she adds.
They lined up famed photographer and lighting designer Walter Holt to create a unique experience in the orchard.
The business will also be again taking part in the Bank of Ireland sponsored Open Farm Weekend early next month, another hugely successful initiative designed to strengthen the bridge between farming families and the wider public here.
The entrepreneurial family is now justifiably respected as a driving force in both cider processing and food tourism, a developing collaboration which is reinforcing our global reputation as the `World’s Best Food Destination’, a title gained by promotion body Food NI in last November’s World Travel Trade Awards.