HRH Anne, The Princess Royal, made many friends among Lakeland Dairies' staff and suppliers as she opened the firm's new £5 million high-tech product packing facility today (Wednesday, September 5) in Co. Down.
Princess Anne was received on arrival by the Lord Lieutenant of Co. Down, David Lindsay, and greeted by senior representatives from the co-operative - including chairman Alo Duffy and group chief executive Michael Hanley.
Those who met her said they were impressed by her interest in farming and knowledge of the industry's biggest challenges.
Among those to speak to her was Co. Longford supplier Andrew McHugh.
McHugh, who milks 200 cows in a spring-calving system, said the princess was "very engaging" and had a "great level of interest" in the dairy industry.
Vice-chairman of Lakeland Dairies' board Colin Kelso, who runs a 300-cow herd in Co. Tyrone, agreed with McHugh's sentiments.
"She understood the huge advantages of a grass-based system for both farmers and processors," he added.
"Lakeland needs high-quality milk, so this is right at the centre of the business' values."
Others said that she took a great interest in asking about robotic milking systems, and it's understood there was even a bit of friendly banter about the pros and cons of different breeds - of course, followed by a spirited discussion on which one The Princess Royal favours.
Lord Dunleath - who farms in Ballywalter, Co. Down - explained: "It was a great conversation starter. She explained that she drinks milk directly from her brother's herd of Jerseys. We were talking about the cream content of the milk and the high yields of our pedigree Holstein cattle.
She is a real country person through and through with a good understanding of farming; she knows fine well it's not all a bed of roses.
The new packing hall will increase production capability at the site by around 50% and is part of an overall £27 million investment by Lakeland Dairies in Newtownards over the past 10 years.
It follows the opening in 2015 of a major new Global Logistics Centre in Newtownards, which is among the most technically-advanced in Europe.
Lakeland Dairies brings together over 750 family farms producing 600 million litres of pasture-based milk in Northern Ireland.
The co-operative employs 225 people at Newtownards and the operation supports some 700 further jobs among suppliers and contractors across Northern Ireland.
Alo Duffy, chairman of Lakeland Dairies, said: “The driving aim of Lakeland Dairies is to create a vibrant and sustainable future for co-operative dairy farmers and to support them with the highest possible milk prices in line with market conditions. We are also intent on promoting the well-being of rural communities and the environment in which we operate.
"The opening of these excellent new facilities by The Princess Royal provides great encouragement for our co-operative ideals of 'Better Farming, Better Business and Better Living' for all of our milk producers and the provision of exceptional service and delivery for our customers throughout the world.”
Michael Hanley, group chief executive, added: “Lakeland Dairies is an internationally recognised supplier of superb dairy ingredients and foodservice products underpinned by outstanding, high-quality raw materials in the milk that our dairy farmers send to us for processing.
"We serve the dairy product needs of leading customers in key food industry sectors worldwide.
"Together with modern, large-scale processing facilities and a highly skilled workforce, we are addressing many opportunities for growth and development in line with continuously strong global demand for dairy products.
"Our Newtownards base will continue to play a key role in the ongoing export success of Northern Ireland long into the future."