‘We need to sex up the potato and ... show its health credentials’

Farmer Thomas McKeown says campaign will be a much-needed shot in the arm for the industry

Potato farmer Thomas McKeown: ‘We need to break away from the potato’s image as linked to the famine, as something old people talk about.’ Photograph: Finbarr O’Rourke

Potato farmer Thomas McKeown: ‘We need to break away from the potato’s image as linked to the famine, as something old people talk about.’ Photograph: Finbarr O’Rourke

 

Potato farmer Thomas McKeown was training at his local GAA club a few years back when a coach suggested he start eating pasta.

“To tell someone in Co Meath not to eat spuds, you’re looking to get your head taken off,” he recalls.

“But potatoes were getting a bad name, a bad press, that they were fattening.

“Even trainers around here were saying pasta gives a slower release of energy. I know of men who lost their jobs over what was said.”

By that time, around the late noughties, it had clicked with him that something was wrong.

“I could even see it with people coming into the farmyard to buy potatoes – the customers that come into the yard is a good barometer. There wasn’t as many coming.”

McKeown sells his potatoes mostly to packers, essentially middle men supplying the supermarkets, as well as wholesalers, which stock smaller shops and the west of Ireland. His spuds end up on the shelves of Lidl, Aldi, SuperValu and Dunnes.

Smaller bags

The supermarkets were starting to ask packers for smaller bags, saying that was what customers wanted.

He compared the “bad press” potatoes were getting to the collapse of the egg industry in Britain in the late 1980s after then Conservative minister Edwina Currie sparked a salmonella scare.

The second generation to run his family farm at Castletown, close to the Cavan and Louth borders, McKeown was on the brink of giving it up as sales went into freefall.

“We were finishing up at the end of the year having to dump potatoes or sell them for cattle food,” says the 48-year-old.

The famine

The father of three boys (a 12-year-old and twins aged eight) watched as “scores” of other potato farmers in his area either went bust or gave it up for something else. He was considering applying for a job at Tara Mines in Navan.

But he was just about able to carry on. One hot summer in Russia opened a temporary new market and got him through another year.

In the last few years, he has noticed a rebound since the Bord Bia campaign targeting women. “The slide has definitely stopped. Consumption has actually risen a bit,” he says, adding that he believes a campaign focusing on millennials will give the industry another well-needed shot in the arm.

“I’m not saying we should forget our history, but we need to break away from the potato’s image as linked to the famine, as something old people talk about,” he says.

“We need to sex up the potato, and also show its health credentials.”