Lifetime achievement award

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Thomas Gilpin grew up on a farm in Portadown and started his career in 1965 with a 4.5 acre field, growing vegetables for supply to small shops.

The father of three received an MBE in 2012 for his services to Agriculture in NI, and has been a member of the Ulster Farmers Union Vegetable Committee since it was founded. Until recently, Thomas has been a long serving member of the UK Brassica Growers Association, and has been the only member from Northern Ireland to serve on the board. In 2013, he received a Lifetime Achievement award in recognition of how far ahead Gilfresh were in the storage of brassicas and root crops.

In the early to mid 1980s, Thomas started vegetable production, growing cabbages, carrots and swede for the local wholesale market. By the late 1980s, a packing and processing plant was built and Thomas started supplying Stewarts supermarkets in NI through Avondale Foods. During the 1990s he was the main supplier for vegetables to F A Wellworths.

He began working on new methods of storing coleslaw cabbage over the winter for local food processors. With this development, Thomas began to create the current packaging and storage facilities, and by 1995, Gilfresh Produce was established and began operating from its present location in Loughgall. By 1999, the business with Tesco commenced and Gilfresh are still supplying them to this day.

Gilfresh Produce now has a turnover of £18 million and manages the growing of over 2,500 acres of root vegetables, salad crops and brassica vegetables. With an experienced team of 130 talented people, Gilfresh are dedicated to the delivery of fresh produce of the finest quality to customers throughout the UK & Ireland – including multinational supermarkets.

Having previously used his lifetime of growing experience to manage the 40 Gilfresh growers with around 1,200 acres both North and South of Ireland, Thomas now concentrates on farming around 600 acres of carrots, swede, rye, maize and grass silage along with his brother Kenneth, whilst his son William, oversees the daily operations at Gilfresh. Thomas recently entered the UFU Cereal Competition Oats Category and received first place in Co. Armagh and second in Northern Ireland.

Thomas is the first to emphasise the integral part that the growers, many of them local, play in the success of Gilfresh, and in 2011 an awards ceremony was held to formally recognise the growers for their achievements in obtaining Assured Produce/Bord Bia Accreditation. He has also developed long term relationships with growers in Scotland, France and Spain to develop crop programmes during import season.

Thomas has played a huge role with farm diversification. In 2013, a purpose built high care facility was opened, allowing the processing of vegetables and value adding, expanding the customer base. This allows Gilfresh to utilise crop not suitable for the retail market by peeling, slicing and dicing, and in turn sold to the food service market.

In 2013, Thomas travelled to Germany to look at Anaerobic Digesters. In 2014 construction commenced, with Thomas designing and overseeing the architecture of the land and construction. This plant was completed in 2015 and processes approximately 7,500 tonnes of waste vegetables, combined with grass, rye and maize. The combination of these generates a methane gas which in turn powers a 500kW generator to create around 4 million KW of electricity per year, which is used to power the factory and offices, with any surplus being exported to the grid. Thomas is currently overlooking the installation of a wind turbine on the Gilfresh site, and there are plans to erect a 2.5 acre site of glass houses for crop growing. which will utilise hot water and CO2 emissions generated from the exhaust of the Combined Heat and Power Unit.

Read: Farming Life awards: Entering a worthwhile experience - Thomas Gilpin