A Chat With Ballyholey Farm

As part of our Donegal Food Coast newsletter, we catch up with local food producers from around the county. In this issue, we’re talking to John Graham and Tracy McBride of Ballyholey Farm Shop, which is located on the main Letterkenny to Lifford Road and has been running since December 2014.

Why did you set up Ballyholey Farm Shop?

John set up the farm shop in December 2014 in response to a change in the market. We had previously supplied wholesale producers but were finding this market became too difficult due to pricing, so we set out on a journey to supply direct to the consumer. We were lucky because we had space to do this and our location (just off the main Letterkenny to Lifford road) was also an advantage. From passing trade, we built up a significant loyal customer base. In March 2015, we began attending the Letterkenny Artisan Market, which is now known as the Letterkenny Real Food and Farmers’ Market on the Port Road. This was a great success for the business and helped us build our reputation and make more people aware of the brand and what we offered.

How did the pandemic affect your business?

Like every other business in Ireland, we had to think fast and find new ways to supply our customers. At the start of the pandemic, the business suffered because all of the restaurants we supply, bar one,  closed. It was a very worrying time, but we pulled together with the other producers from the food market in Letterkenny and set about establishing a website to allow for online shopping.

We also had our own website for Ballyholey Farm, but we did not have an online shopping facility so we worked around the clock to get it set up, and managed to do so within 48 hours of the 15th of March. It’s worked out really well and customers can order online and select a day and time for collection. Clients arrived at the farm shop after ordering online and they opened their boot and their click and collect order was left in boot for them. We expanded our product range to include organic flowers, chutneys, sea salts and a host of other Irish produce. The response was just unbelievable and thankfully the online shop continues to do well. With the ease in restrictions, our click and collect customers can now come into the shop to browse around. Initially the shop was open three days a week but now we are operating five days a week to meet demand.

Despite all the challenges, what has been the highlight of 2020?

There’s no denying that this has been an absolutely horrific time for all of us, but the one positive that we take from the pandemic and resulting lockdown, is that more people are eating real food. People are going back to basics, which is really positive. They are cooking a lot more and this is evident by the volume of produce we are selling daily. During the lockdown, we received many calls and messages from people in the surrounding areas who were cocooning, and even though we weren’t advertising deliveries, we were delighted as a small business to be in a position to deliver fresh produce to them. It meant a lot to us that we were able to help others in this small way.

How important is seasonality in food?

Very important; but what’s important is that we are able to pass on the benefits of seasonality to our customers. We will always explain that certain vegetables cannot be produced at certain times of the year. Making sure our customers understand this is really important to us and it’s also key to the environment.

What is your favourite vegetable?

Carrots! Hence my email address is carrotmanjohn. I love to grow them, I love to eat them, I just love carrots.

Is there a particular vegetable that grows really well in Donegal, and if so why?

Root vegetables like carrots, parsnips and potatoes grow really well in Donegal. We work a lot with crop rotation to allow the ground to rest and revitalize allowing the nutrients to come back into the soil. It has taken a long time to perfect the art of growing vegetables. Although, these vegetables grow really well, we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature, so anything can happen! We’re currently growing about 60 different vegetables and varieties of vegetables, so our Donegal soil is bountiful for many vegetables, and not just root ones. We also have tunnels which are a great advantage with Donegal’s inclement and unpredictable weather, and we use them to grow salad leaves, tomatoes, peas, herbs, beetroots and much more.

What do you think is the future of food production in Donegal?

Overall, a lot of farmers are downsizing in relation to potatoes because demand is not what it was 20 years ago, but we are very hopeful for the future of our farm. We have built strong relations with our customers and we try to innovate all the time. Joining the Food Coast Donegal has really helped connect us with other like-minded food producers and it’s an exciting time for food in the county. Peoples’ tastes and food trends constantly change so for us to keep abreast of that is vital.  There is a growing demand for local produce. I speak with the local chefs to learn about what ingredients they want for their restaurant and I try to work with them before I turn a sod in the field, so it’s a real farm to fork process.

Tell us about your Dig Your Dinner event?

Our Dig your Dinner event is a Food Coast Donegal Experience which happens annually. We began last year with one event, but the demand has been so strong that we hosted three this year. The aim of the experience is to highlight the importance of buying local and knowing where your food comes from, which is at the heart of what the Food Coast Donegal Network is all about. It’s also a great opportunity for foodies and families alike to enjoy a few hours in the outdoors, and they literally dig their dinner of potatoes and a selection of vegetables and put it into a crate to take home. The Dig Your Dinner event has become a highlight of the Ballyholey Farm calendar and we will definitely be hosting more events in 2021, so keep an eye on our social media for details.