InterTradeIreland exists to help small businesses in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland expand into cross-border supply chains. They help businesses develop new products, identify new potential markets and become “investor ready”.

They also provide grants, funding and business insights for brands wanting to expand their offering. They are funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the republic and by the Department for the Economy in the North.

Draynes Farm Ice Cream

On a recent visit to Northern Ireland, I met with Owen Drayne of Draynes Farm, which is located in Lisburn. Suppliers of food products – mainly dairy – and makers of premium Draynes Farm Ice Cream; Owen and his cousin, John, were recent recipients of an InterTradeIreland business grant of €8000, which they hope will help them find new markets for their ice cream south of the border.

As we tour the family’s farmyard, Owen tells Irish Country Living that the Drayne family have been dairy farming since 1932.

Owen Drayne operates Draynes Farm with his cousin, John. They make premium ice cream with milk from their own herd and milk from local farmers

“This is our 90th year,” he says. “We used to farm up the road, but then we ran out of space so we bought the farm here. We always worked in dairying. My granda and his two brothers started [the farm], and then it was my father and my uncle. Now it’s myself and my cousin.”

Owen says the family originally had a small number of cows, but as they started producing more milk than they could drink, they began delivering milk to a few local houses with a churn on the back of a horse-drawn cart.

“Then, the herd expanded and more churns went on the back of the cart - and it just grew from there,” he laughs.

The family now robotically milk 150 cows, which means the cows are milked as needed, up to four times a day. They are producing high quality milk and cream, and seven years ago, the opportunity arose for them to start making premium ice cream. Today, the local demand (ie. within Ulster) for their ice cream is so great that they use their own milk and also the milk of other local dairy farmers.

“Originally, we were supplying another ice cream company with our milk, but then they decided to park up and asked if we’d like to buy their ice cream equipment,” he explains. “At the start, we offered just two flavours: honeycomb and vanilla. And the ice cream was made by one man - my cousin, John, who is our head of production. He’d just stand by the machine, pouring the vanilla in and he’d be sprinkling on the honeycomb - it was very labour intensive.”

Existing customer base

When the cousins began making ice cream, they found their existing customer base were more than willing to buy thanks to their positive reputation for high quality milk and cream.

“The ice cream business grew organically,” he says. “When we told [our existing customers] we were doing ice cream, they were really interested. While we only had two flavours at the start, we now offer 12 - with another couple in the pipeline. Having that reputation, and those customers ready to buy, really made a difference when we were starting out.”

Draynes Farm sell their ice cream via food service and retail streams. They supply hotels, hospitals, high end restaurants and local corner shops. While their product is considered premium – which makes local chefs happy to put it on their menus – they also want their ice cream to be accessible and enjoyed by everyone.

When they first started making ice cream, they only offered two flavours. Now, they offer 12 and are developing others.

“We like that we can tell our customer base exactly where the ingredients in the ice cream are coming from,” he says. “While we want to be for everybody, people also appreciate that with quality ingredients going into it, the ice cream will be at a slightly higher price point than other brands. But people are willing to pay for quality.”

Sustainable growth

They are committed to growing their business as sustainably as possible. Owen tells me they have had a 50 KW solar system at the farm since 2015. Two months ago, they installed a 75 KW solar system. With both systems operational, they are now producing 30% of all their energy usage through solar.

“We plan to increase our energy production using renewable energy sources even further next year,” he says. “We are also currently creating our carbon reduction plan to meet our sustainability goals and, with regards packaging, we are trying to be innovative to reduce our dependence on plastic and provide the customer with a greener option.”

InterTradeIreland Grant

Earlier this year, Owen and John saw the opportunity to apply for an InterTradeIreland grant to help expand their business into the republic. This was their next logical step, since they already deliver product as far as south Armagh, just minutes from the border.

“We saw a grant where IntertradeIreland would pay for half of a sales team in the south to help businesses expand - to export, really - so we put in an application. After a few months of back and forth, and a bit more paperwork, we got over the line in June and they started working with us in July. We got our first distributor on board in Monaghan, just over the border, and we’re going down there about once a week or every fortnight with a considerable order.”

Ultimate goal

The ultimate goal for Draynes Farm is to have their ice cream in every county in Ireland. They are speaking with distributors and hope to get into Dublin as well as Galway, where they can work with someone to service the west coast.

“A lot of our business in the local area has been through restaurants and it’s a lot easier to make those connections with chefs. For the south, we’re trying to find distributors but distributors who handle the product well – it’s important to find the right person to work with when you’re dealing with a frozen product especially.”

There’s no doubt the cousins will meet challenges along the way, but Owen tells Irish Country Living that, so far, they have no regrets but will now need to focus on the logistics of moving their product further into the republic.

“And you’d want considerable business to make distribution in the south worth the while,” he adds. “We’ve grown quite organically, until now, without chasing business - so growing has never been a focus, really, until now. We do see a future in the growth of the ice cream and we know the margins in milk is tight, where the ice cream can be an earner.”

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