Maria Flynn has to take a moment to gather herself on her first ever Skype call. She has taken to the technology with ease. But there's a point where her eyes fill, and she has to gather herself as she mentions the phrase that keeps flowing in: "We've got your back."
It has been a head-spinning few weeks for Ballymakenny Farm Potatoes. Instead of supplying chefs, they have set up a drive-through spudshack on the farm, and are posting potatoes by courier to anywhere in Ireland.
Her husband David is the farmer on the family's 120-acre farm near Drogheda in Co Louth. "I just do what I'm told when I'm in a field," Maria says.
The couple took over the family farm in 2007. “From the year David took over things went into decline for us. Most of it was out of our control. The weather has got really weird in the last few years. The seasons aren’t defined anymore.”
She could see them heading into debt with lower prices and mounting rent bills, diesel and wages. “To manage my anxiety and stress I needed something positive to focus on.”
She asked David to buy some purple violetta potato seed after a vegetable grower asked her “why don’t you grow for chefs instead of shops?”
"It tickled my interest to set up a hobby. And I was going to go up to Dublin in my Toyota Avensis with my purple potatoes in my boot. I was going to try and get a bit of cash at kitchen doors, to be completely honest, to make enough money to get my hair coloured and that kind of stuff. I knew the farm was out of my control. So I had to do something for control, and that was my little business."
Land we rent
In the last five years Maria’s little business has become the whole business.
“This coming season we’ve dropped all the land we rent. David isn’t growing any roosters for commercial selling. The whole farm has turned around to my business now.
“We can’t support ourselves fully yet...So we rent out land, we rent out some storage on the farm, and it all adds up to a living in which David and I can still get our hands dirty. I’m amazed how much I’ve grown to love growing. And that’s down to the chefs.”
At markets she got a kick out of hearing customers say whether they liked the purple violetta or the pink red emmalie better. “In the food world those type of discussions happen all the time but they do not happen around spuds. To hear people talking about potatoes in that fashion, with a palate – yes, notions about potatoes – it gave us some kind of self-worth back.
“We had come from a point where we were begging wholesalers to take rooster potatoes for practically nothing. To see David’s love of farming coming back has been a joy over the last few years.
“We still have lots of hurdles and debts to get over from the time of being commercial farmers. This isn’t a fairy story by any stretch of the imagination, but we have something really focused that we’re trying to build.”
Like thousands of other businesses the nightmare of losing all her customers overnight hit with Covid-19. She coped by doing, taking a half-idea about a drive-through spud shack on to social media. It was only when a journalist asked to take a photograph that she told David.
“I know my husband, and if I’d asked him to do this from the beginning we’d still be sitting waiting for a Marks and Spencers-level operation to appear. He overthinks it too much.”
So she broke the news and then just “got out of the way” and he “swung into action”. A garden shed was washed down, disinfected and shelving installed. “He’s pimped it up slowly over the week and he’s really proud of it now.”
In the boot
Customers call out their card number through their car windows two metres from the spudshack and the potatoes are put in the boot. They have been astonished at the level of interest, and it has been a glimmer of hope for a more connected food future ahead. Instead of chefs sending her pictures of her potatoes she’s now getting those from home cooks.
Direct sales have not replaced her restaurant income, but they have been a hug of support from customers she never knew she had.
“I love the chefs and I’m just devastated. They’ve shown me so much bloody support and love over the last few years, and to see this happen to them is very emotional to me. What we’re doing is keeping me busy. And it’s given me a belief in people.”
Customers can order from one kilo to 20 kilos of potatoes (for €2.50 a kilo) delivered by courier for a €5 charge. Orders to Maria by direct message on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter or by email to email@example.com