By Fiona Dickson,
Head of Learner Services, CAFRE
Recently I met three generations of the Wright family who have been part of the fabric of the local agri-food industry for many years.
As I listened to father, son and grandson/nephew, I heard the passion that each of them has for their different but connected careers and life choices.
From Jim I heard about his love for dairy farming, from his son Mark it was his determination to drive forward the relatively young family business of farmhouse cheese production under the Ballylisk brand.
Jim’s grandson and Mark’s nephew, Matthew, was equally as enthusiastic as he talked about the new horticulture course that he began in September after leaving school in June and the opportunities that are opening up for him through his new online business.
What made this story even more interesting for me is that each one of them is connected to College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and without exception they all told me that the college has shaped their lives for the better.
Jim came to Greenmount College, as it was back in 1962, as a fresh-faced 17 year old. As we walked around the campus, almost 60 years later, he pointed out his halls of residence, which coincidentally is where Matthew now stays.
He told that there were 80 students at the college, of which two were girls, and he welcomed the fact that CAFRE now has almost 1900 agriculture students, 850 of which are females. He appreciates the diversity of skills they can bring to an evolving and changing agri-food industry.
Jim reflected on the fun and valuable learning experience that he had at Greenmount in the 1960s. He studied for a year and enjoyed being part of the rugby team, remarking that his whole experience was character building. Modestly, he showed me a photo which hung in his family home until quite recently. It was taken in 1963, just before he left the college. He had been awarded first place in Dairying and used his prize money to travel to Denmark and Sweden for three weeks where he saw a bit of farming life abroad.
As one of CAFRE’s alumni, he has returned to the campus a few times over the years and I couldn’t help noticing how pleased he was to be returning now, as the grandfather of one of our current students.
I rarely meet anyone who talks as passionately about their business as Jim’s son Mark. After returning to the family business from a life in the public sector, Mark told how he and his brother Dean set up Ballylisk Dairies in County Armagh and in 2017 they launched their first product, Ballylisk’s Triple Rose, an award winning white mould, single–herd triple cream cheese.
However, Mark testified that their signature cheese, which started as an idea round the kitchen table, only became a reality because of the support and knowledge they received from Gary Andrews.
At that time Gary was a leading Dairy Technologist at CAFRE’s Loughry campus in Cookstown. Gary guided the Wright family through the highs and lows of product development. Mark laughed about how he thought that the first trial run gave a satisfactory product, but Gary’s experience and skills meant that he was disappointed and was determined to try again to make a better cheese.
Mark also showed his full appreciation of the Innovation Voucher Scheme funded by Invest NI. He is grateful that he received public funding to help him launch his business and his product. However he reflected that he got so much more out of the experience than just a business proposition.
By spending time in Loughry’s Food Technology Centre, he absorbed knowledge and skills, learned about the culture of the local industry and built life-long friendships with the staff in CAFRE.
Under Mark’s direction, the family cheese business is going from strength to strength and, having developed a smoked variation of the Ballylisk cheese, he shared his plans to launch a speciality truffle variation of the Triple Cream Cheese in time for Christmas.
The success of the business has allowed Mark to offer placement work to two French students and Emma Donnelly, a Foundation Degree student from Loughry’s Food Manufacture and Nutrition course.
Mark knows that these students are getting an excellent opportunity to learn about cheese-making during their placement, however he also acknowledged that he is benefitting from the technical knowledge that these vibrant young people have brought into his factory. And that is why he gave the assertion that 2022 will be his year to focus on people development and the career opportunities that Ballylisk can offer.
Matthew Wright is studying a one-year Level 2 Diploma in Practical Horticulture Skills. As we walked around the grounds of Greenmount, he stopped here and there, pointing out plants and chatting about the practical work he was doing the previous week.
He showed his grandfather and his uncle the work that he has been completing since enrolling in his course in September 2021 and spent time poring over some old photographs with his grandfather, looking at how innovation and technology at Greenmount has progressed from 1960s to 2021.
This led Matthew into a conversation about his aspirations for the future. He has already set up his own online business offering gardening and landscaping services and who knows what path he will choose in June 2022 when he graduates from CAFRE.
Strong family ties are common in the Northern Ireland agri-food businesses and this is no different for the Wright family. However each generation has chosen a different career path in the industry, but whether it is agriculture, food or horticulture, CAFRE has been able to help them grow and develop in their area of interest and expertise.
It was a pleasure to meet Jim, Mark and Matthew in the beautiful grounds of CAFRE’s Greenmount campus and I hope to see them again soon. CAFRE has a wealth of courses to suit everyone at all stages in their lives. Learning never stops and they are welcome back anytime.