In this week’s Farmer Focus series, That’s Farming, speaks to Peter Mc Keever of Long Meadow Farm, in Co. Armagh. We discuss how the Keevers transitioned into the apple production business, the farm they run, the harvesting season as well as the ups and downs of the life of an apple farmer.
Peter, alongside his parents, Catherine and Pat Mc Keever, sisters, Catrina, Alanna, Patricia and Nuala, run an apple production and cider company.
Peter describes the operation as “very much so a family run business”.
He is a third-generation farmer in Long Meadow Farm. He is accompanied on the farm by the next generation of farmers, his nephews.
The family farm has been in business for three generations. His grandfather established ‘Long Meadow Farm’, where he planted the first apple trees on the home farm in Portadown.
“We still have the trees Grandad planted on our farm today.”
Long Meadow Farm
Peter’s grandparents, Kathleen and Peter, sparked his interest in the family farm.
“My granny, Kathleen, and grandad, Peter, actually used to grow their own strawberries. Then, grandad introduced the apples onto the farm, and my father took it over,” he explains to That’s Farming.
“I finished school and attended the farm full-time about eight or nine years ago.”
Fast forward to 2022, Long Meadow Farm is producing apples from their family farm alongside their successful cider company.
They produce craft ciders, apple juices, apple cider vinegar, as well as host bespoke tour packages on the family farm.
“This is very much so full-time employment whether you are out in the orchards or on a production line bottling apple juice and labelling or packaging.”
“Other tasks on the farm include guiding guests around our peaceful and stunning orchards where they get a chance to experience life on an apple farm.”
Where guests attend the farm tours, they have the opportunity to sample cider and dine in the middle of the orchards with some homemade apple pies.
Growing apples in Portadown
The home farm comprises 28-acres of orchard plantations, as well as an additional 80-acres in orchards nearby. Both farms host a variety of different orchards.
“We have older trees that have been planted over 50 years ago. Grandad also grafted a sweet tree in among these, so really, you have two trees growing in the one.”
When discussing the different types of apples suitable for cider production, Peter tells That’s Farming, “a Bramley apple is a fantastic crisp cooking apple”.
According to Peter, these Bramley apples are also “great for pollination and in his grandfather’s day, it saved farmers planting separate trees elsewhere”. “A golden delicious apple tree is grafted inside these Bramley apple trees.”
The younger trees at Long Meadow Farm were planted fifteen years ago. A fruit wall system has been in place for the last twelve years.
“The purpose of having these new and younger systems in place is to encourage safe working on the farm.”
“Health and safety are very important in the orchards. The younger, smaller trees reduce ladder work for our teams, and it helps with the picking process.”
The predominant variety grown in Long Meadow Farm is the Armagh Bramley apple, which they hold a PGI status for.
“We grow the PGI Bramley apples because they are a great storing apple. Furthermore, we have clients that don’t need their fruit right away. We use our cold storage facilities to keep the fruit fresh.”
The Bramley apple could be in storage on-farm from seven to eleven months. The purpose of the dessert apples is for apple juice, craft cider and apple cider vinegar production.
In addition to this, Katy, Worcester, Jona Gold Price, Red Elstar and Golden Delicious are the other varieties grown in Mc Keever’s orchard.
Harvesting season at Long Meadow Farm begins at the end of August. Furthermore, this period can last up to nine to ten weeks on the farm.
“A good team helping you is half the battle. We would normally have a team of 18-30 people. Machinery is not used to pick or gather the fruit; it is all hand-picked.”
Peter has set targets in terms of his ideal apple. “We aim to grow our apples up to 65mm and above. To achieve this, we look after our orchards all year round to achieve rich and healthy fruit.”
Peter tells That’s Farming about the apples that do not make the cut for production, “apples that are not suitable for production and storage are called windfalls”.
These apples simply drop to the ground and are also collected. Hereafter, they go into a separate company for further production and can also be used in terms of animal feeding.
“Thankfully, there is little to no waste on our farm,” he commented.
Each year, a new list of goals is set for Long Meadow Farm.
“The targets we set each year is to continue to produce clean and safe products, sourcing new stockists and building up reliable relationships with our customers.”
Setting targets for the farm encourages the apple producers to “up their game” regarding cider, apple juice and apple cider vinegar productions every year.
“I am constantly thinking of new additions to bring to our range, checking out and researching new markets, expanding the farm and our tours.”
The apple farming life
Peter remarks particularly on the joy he obtains from leading a life in apple production.
“It has a lovely lifestyle to it. Every day is different with regards to work, jobs that should be carried out, the people I meet and the areas I could be in when out and about in the van.”
Peter and his team complete a series of tasks each day to ensure the successful and smooth running of the apple production enterprise.
On reflection, Peter tells That’s Farming of some of the potential difficulties and challenges that have arisen. “A lot of farmers are on the same boat, big challenges such as getting material, farm products, fuel and spraying products in.”
Like many farmers, Long Meadow Farm has been hit with the cost of supplies rising.
Another aspect that has become a challenge is the sourcing of employees. “Good seasonal workers to help us out during the harvest has been a huge challenge during both Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic,” Peter tells That’s Farming.
The future has no limits
At present, the Keevers are rightfully delighted with their current enterprise. Older trees are the focus of the farm for the next few years.
“Our future in apple farming is looking promising, thankfully, as we have diversified on our farm with the cider company producing delicious and natural products.”
Peter tells That’s Farming, “I left school, and I did not attend university”.
However, he attended different courses at Loughry College, which Peter remarked as “incredibly helpful and really worthwhile”.
His main life ambition following his school years was to start working. It was from this period of time that Long Meadow Farm commenced producing craft cider at ‘Long Meadow Cider’.
Peter concludes, “a lot of hard work, time, money and stress has gone into these businesses from my parents, myself and my siblings. We are simply delighted with our family farm to date”.
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