The Carton family started a poultry market for spent hens. These were hens that had finished their laying days. Owners would label the spent hens and they would be collected from farms and brought to Dublin, first by horse and cart and later by rail. This system continued from the 1790s all the way up until the 1960s.
While the supply chain may have been sophisticated for the time, with Cartons sending out collectors to farms across north Leinster, the chicken market itself was fairly simple, and unappetising for much of the year. “Spent hens were quite old and were only fit for boiling”, Carton explains. “They weren’t very nice to eat but were rich in protein. Once a year, spring chickens became available. These were young male chickens which were superfluous to the owners’ needs. Spring chickens could be roasted and commanded a premium price.”
That situation continued for the best part of two centuries. Tasty chicken dishes were more or less an annual treat. But then a revolution happened thanks to a man who Carton describes as his hero.
Joe McLean was general manager of Patton’s Feed Mill in Monaghan and was a true innovator. He supplied feed to local chicken farmers and was looking for ways to improve his business and theirs. “He brought a dozen local farmers over to America to show them barn reared chickens. The system separated the breeders and the growers; the breeders supplied the chicks to the growers who finished them. This meant that you could have spring chicken all year round. With chicken the products all come down to numbers – there are two fillets and two legs in a chicken. What Joe McLean did was teach the farmers how to produce them in thousands instead of dozens.”
McLean’s foresight was to have a profound impact on the Cavan/Monaghan area. Today, some two thirds of chickens produced in Ireland and almost all turkey and duck come from the area. The mushroom industry is also centred there, as it utilises manure produced by the poultry industry.
The increased supply of spring chicken all year round was not without its challenges for Manor Farm. “It was actually difficult to sell spring chicken in November. People weren’t used to that and were a little suspicious. They took a bit of convincing.”
There were other challenges and the firm responded by innovating. “If two farmers were selling lots of chickens into the market at the same time the price would collapse”, Carton explains. “We started working with the farmers to schedule when their chickens would come to market. Around 1970 the supermarkets started opening up in Ireland and they didn’t want feathers and guts – they wanted dressed birds. We went into processing back then and were processing 100,000 chickens a week in a premises off Capel Street. But it takes a lot of water to process chicken and the birds are bulky to transport so it was decided to move the processing facility up to Shercock in Co. Cavan right in the heartland of the supply.”
In 1968 the company moved to address the issue of variability in chickens being produced by farmers. This was mainly due to variable quality breeding stock being used. “Birds lay eggs of different sizes which in turn produce chicks of different sizes”, he points out. “The larger chicks naturally do best and if kept together you will have a wide range in sizes. We established our own hatchery and separated the smaller chicks from the larger ones and supplied different farmers with chicks of a similar size. This improved overall quality.”
The next major innovative step was the establishment of a feed mill. Variability in feed was also affecting product quality and Manor Farm wanted to achieve higher and more consistent standards.
“We have a very different view of innovation. We want to give people more ways of eating chicken. We learned a lot from working with Superquinn back in the 1990s. Feargal Quinn kept asking for innovative new products.”
What the firm discovered through working with Superquinn and their customers was that consumers enjoyed the innovative products they were producing but tended to buy them just once before replicating them at home. “What we found is that if a supermarket gives us six percent of the chicken shelf space for innovative new products that we can drive up the overall sales of chicken quite significantly. We do that by giving consumers new and exciting ideas on how to consume chicken.”
The next thing the firm had to do was fit in with the modern consumers’ lives.
“If you look at all meat products today the strongest growth is in chicken and sausages. These days if a parent has a family to feed in the evening they need to get it done fast. They want something that takes a few minutes to prepare, 15 minutes to cook, and a few more minutes to put on the table. Pasta, frozen pizzas, ready meals, and chicken fillets and sausages fit into that profile. The most important attribute is that it cooks in 15 minutes. That’s five days a week. At weekends they are looking for a family experience and are willing to invest quite a lot of time in preparing a family meal. They are creating the family around the dinner table. The other big advantage of chicken is that it fits in there as well.”
He contends that there is nothing as innovative as a chicken. “People more and more want breast fillets and that is the wing muscle. Northern climate chickens don’t really fly so their wing muscles are not very well developed. There is a lot of innovation going on in the breeding side and we have been introducing jungle breeds which have a much bigger breast muscle. Breeding, hatching, growing, processing – the whole chain. Every part of it is subject to constant change and improvement. In the next five years we will have to rejuvenate the whole thing again.”
At present the company processes 850,000 chickens a week and 70 percent of them are cut into portions. “There are now robotic systems to handle fillets which can pick them for packs according to weight and so on. The world is changing out on the farm as well. Farmers now have underfloor heating systems and the roofs of the buildings are made with solar panels.”
Looking at innovating generally in Ireland Carton believes we are very good at micro innovation. “The mid-sized companies who came through the recession are where the potential for growth, employment and innovation lies. Enterprise Ireland is doing a very good job of supporting innovation in these firms. We are looking at reinventing our existing products to make them more attractive to export markets. The way we do chicken in Ireland wouldn’t sell in France for example. We are going through the process of finding out what the customer wants in different export markets.”
Those efforts could be supported by more commercially focused research, he argues. “There is some fantastic research happening in Ireland but you might get 1,000 research papers and no new products. There needs to be a closer link to commercialisation. It would be better to have just 100 research papers and 50 new products.”
Innovation in food production, particularly in terms of sustainability, can be a valuable source of competitive advantage. “Origin Green is a great programme. Every company on it has to produce a plan it’s not just an audit or a status report. Last year we produced 5.43 tonnes of carbon per tonne of chicken. We plan to get this down to 1.42 in five years. That’s real and reaching the target will involve every part of the chain from grain sourcing to growing. We have done a three year deal with a grain supplier to replace chemical fertiliser with chicken manure.”
He also believes Ireland enjoys natural advantages in terms of the collaborative attitude to innovation shared by many firms here. “Collaboration and co-operation is the way forward”, he says. “There is huge benefit to be had from collaborative innovation and the Irish are very good at this. I have spoken to food processors in France and they can’t believe the way the food industry here comes together and shares its experience of problems and the solutions they have found to them. We all get better by doing this.”
This has certainly worked for Manor Farm where its eight generation innovation journey has helped it grow to a €224 million turnover company with more than 820 employees, and 160 contracted farmers.