Farmer and businessman Thomas Gilpin was given a standing ovation as he collected the Lifetime Achievement Award at a top farming competition last week.
Mr Gilpin, founder of Loughgall-based Gilfresh Produce, 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.
Gilfresh Produce now has a turnover of £18 million and manages the growing of more than 2,500 acres of root vegetables, salad crops and brassica vegetables. It has a team of 130 people and 40 Gilfresh growers.
At the Farming Life Danske Bank Awards, held last Thursday at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Belfast, Mr Gilpin took the top accolade for his commitment to the arable industry.
The company also took the Agri-Food Business of the Year prize.
The audience rose to its feet as Mr Gilpin was presented with the award by Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Michelle McIlveen.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Angus Wilson, of Wilson Potatoes, filmed a glowing tribute to Mr Gilpin, summing up his contribution to the industry.
Having started on a small scale in 1965, he expanded his vegetable production in the early to mid 1980s, growing cabbages, carrots and swede for the local wholesale market.
By the late 1980s, a packing and process plant was built to meet the growing demands of the retail outlets and he started supplying Stewarts supermarkets through Avondale Foods. During the 1990s he was the main supplier for vegetables to FA Wellworth.
Mr Gilpin began working on new methods of storing coleslaw cabbage over the winter for local food producers. With this development, he 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 had begun and Gilfresh are supplying them to this day.
The audience at the awards heard how it was Mr Gilpin’s wealth of experience and innovative ideas which enabled him to grow the business from the small operation to the significant local employer it is today.
MLA William Irwin said, “I have known Thomas for many years and he is a very hard working and dedicated individual who has devoted a lot of time and effort to his business and built it into a very successful enterprise.
“In my own constituency his company Gilfresh Produce is a very valued local employer and his entrepreneurial skills have contributed to economic stability in the area.
“It is also another great achievement that the company was awarded Agri-food Business of the Year at the ceremony. This of course is testimony to the effort put in by Thomas and all his hard working team.”