This week’s Irish Farmers Journal / KPMG report shows just how significant farming and the food industry is to the commercial life of towns and their surrounding countryside across the island of Ireland. Cookstown, Co Tyrone was the report’s featured area from Northern Ireland and Irish Country Living visited one of the panel members who was present at the launch - Dr Lorna Lawrence - to find out more about her business.
Lorna describes the motivation to start her rural business as partly spotting a market opportunity and also wanting the challenge to establish a business that used the many skills picked up over her academic and working career. The final push to start the business came from her daughter, Margaret, who was anxious to have a career that fitted around the needs of her young children.
Having graduated in food science in 1990, followed by a PhD in food microbiology in 1993, Lorna spent the earlier part of her career lecturing in the Queen’s University Department of Food Science. After working in academia, Lorna had a number of roles in the industry, including working for Randox, an international diagnostics company. However, it was while working with Invest Northern Ireland - who are the Government agency responsible for business development - that she identified the gap in the market for a food testing laboratory.
Lorna explains: “This area around Cookstown is synonymous with farming - and is in the middle of the food processing belt in Northern Ireland - but has little by way of independent food testing services. Of course, all the major companies have their own accredited laboratories, but Sperrin Technical Laboratories is the only private testing laboratory west of the River Bann.”
The core clients for the business are drawn from across the agrifood sector, ranging from large exporting companies to small microbusinesses, as well as bakeries, restaurants, delicatessens and indeed farmers, who are increasingly selling eggs and raw milk direct from their farms. As Sperrin Technical Laboratories is a small business dealing with small businesses, it means that the relationship is much more than providing a testing facility. Support is provided where requested - which can range from trouble shooting where problems are found, to providing advice and guidance on complying with food legislation and testing requirements.
What businesses have to test
One of the biggest chores for small businesses starting up is making sure they are legally compliant. This is at a stressful time, when most are thinking about production and servicing customers as well as getting invoices out and money in.
While they are doing all this, they also have to make sure they are operating within the law - and nothing will damage a fledgling business as much as being found to be non-compliant. Shelf life testing is undertaken to establish appropriate shelf life dates for new products and salmonella testing is caried out on egg laying flocks to make sure the eggs being sold are salmonella free.
The growth in farmers selling both on farm pasteurised and raw milk through vending machines also requires provision of a testing service. Our chat with Lorna was briefly interrupted by one such farmer - Stephen Roulston from Dromore, Co Tyrone - dropping off a sample for testing!
A growing area for the business has been dairy farmers looking for their own compositional analysis of their milk and somatic cell count (SCC) testing. Some farmers have been surprised to have higher SCC readings than they expected from the tests carried out by their creamery, so Sperrin Technical Laboratories can carry out a separate test on a sample either collected by refrigerated transport or delivered by the farmer, which enables an accurate test be carried out.
Where from here?
Sperrin Technical Laboratories is a perfect example of how a high-tech business can be established in what might seem a remote location; serving the farming and food processing sector. It is very much a family business with Lorna’s husband, Adrian, providing the delivery and collection service. Margaret has less involvement at present because of family commitments, though she helps out when it gets really busy. The business has one other full time and two part time members of staff. Lorna says, “Looking back. it was probably crazy starting a business [when we did] at the outbreak of COVID-19, but it was an essential service to ensure that food safe for human consumption could still be produced and sold.”
She particularly enjoys the short commute to work across the yard - and doesn’t miss the Belfast traffic! The big decision now is: how much does she want the business to grow? As there is real growth potential, but there is also the lifestyle consideration. That is a dilemma common to successful business start ups, and the best one to have! For more visit sperrintechnical.com
The Irish Farmers Journal KPMG report is included in this week’s Irish Farmers Journal.