An organic experience
Patrick Frankel has gone back to his roots to transform the family farm into a thriving enterprise, writes Claire Mc Cormack
Published 20/07/2016 | 02:30
HE grew up in a place most children could just dream of calling home.
Secret gardens, walled orchards, towering woodlands, lush meadows, sloping hills, Georgian architecture, farm yard animals, old stables and charismatic caretakers allowed Patrick Frankel to truly enjoy a "fairytale childhood" in Doneraile, Co Cork, along the banks of the River Awbeg.
His late father, a travelling doctor from London, and mother, an artist from Switzerland, bought Kilbrack House and Farm in 1973. His father became the local GP while also tending to his flock of Kerry Hill sheep - which Patrick describes as "a rare, paranoid, deer-like breed" - and a herd of 40 Aberdeen Angus.
Despite endless academic opportunities at his feet, Patrick - crowned 'Rising Star' at this year's Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Farmer of the Year Awards - could never escape the feeling of digging into the earth and watching all kinds of life sprout around him.
"Growing up in this special place had a massive impact on me, it was a little bit of a bubble. There was an old man who worked here named Johnny, he had sausage fingers and he walked slowly, didn't talk a lot, and he was like an honorary grandfather. My brothers and I were like his shadows. We had our own little plot in the garden, we were always happiest playing there," he said.
At the tender age of 10, Patrick left his magical homestead to go to boarding school in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin. He would go on to study science, zoology and genetics at Trinity College Dublin but his deep connection to the green pastures of Doneraile, where his Dad had started dabbling in organic agriculture, grew stronger and stronger.
"When I was handing in my thesis I just couldn't see my future in a lab. I decided to go on a six month cycling trip from Dublin to Cape Town to consider his career options," he said.
On his return, Patrick moved home and became a labourer for a builder renovating old farm sheds on the 145ac estate.
"I didn't get paid so I sold apples from the orchard in the Autumn and that is how I started, I did commercial organic training in 2007, put up the poly-tunnels and that was my first year growing," said the father-of-two as he hosted an Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) walk at Kilbrack Farm last week.
"I saw we had an opportunity on the farm. I knew organics was expanding especially vegetable production because the input costs financially aren't large, it's more the labour costs. If you're willing to work and get in volunteers I knew we could realise a profit easier than managing the cattle side of it," he said.
However, he reality of the work was the greatest challenge.
"When I started it was hard because I was on my own, the days were long. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was putting out manure in wheelbarrows over an acre, making things by hand, picking, harvesting, planting, sowing alone, selling alone, it was obsessive," he said, adding that picking 40 kilos of delicate salad leaves hours before delivery is a tumultuous task.
Although sales were slow at first , Patrick was soon offered a stall at the Coal Quay Farmer's Market in Cork, which he says changed everything."Local restaurants in Cork came, bought and carried my vegetables straight back to their restaurants.
"The first were Cork Opera House and Jacques, they seemed to like my mixed salad leaves, spinach, French beans, courgettes, tomatoes; and in the winter my kale, potatoes, carrots. More restaurants became interested, people were willing to pay," he said.
Kilbrack Farm now supplies to 14 restaurants, four shops and a butcher in Cork City, Mallow, Mitchelstown, Doneraile and neighbouring towns and villages.
He also supplies the Michelin star, award winning kitchen of Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, Co Cork.
By the end of the year, Patrick is aiming for a 50pc profit margin including wages and costs. He says they are producing double the volume they have ever produced. He also took on one full-time staff member this year. "While we haven't made a lot of money historically, this year we would be looking to make around €60,000 - €70,000, that would be the goal," he said adding that he is not holding enough cattle and sheep to make a meaningful profit yet.
"We're probably making 40pc more profit return on our vegetables relative to meat on this farm but it involves way more personal labour.
"That will change when we increase the beef," he said praising his 12 'woofers' - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms volunteers - who get bed, board, meals and a chance to experience Irish culture in exchange for assistance with farming.
"We'll probably get it up to 30-35 breeding cows and we'll double the sheep numbers, then we'll be making a profit.
"If 30 cows have 30 calves we'd be looking at about €900-€1,100 for them and the sheep might sell for €90-€100 for the lambs so suddenly we'd nearly be doubling the income of what we're making at the moment, that is the next stage," he said.
But for now, it's all about his best selling salad leaves, spinach, kale, tomatoes and small courgettes. Mixed salad leaves per square metre have the highest return at Kilbrack, but the most cost in terms of labour and seed.
"Most of the beds here are 100ft and off that every week you would be pulling 10 kilos. A kilo would be €15 so a 100ft bed is going to make you about €150 a week," he said.
The farm currently holds six acres of intensive horticulture which he says is "more than sufficient" for growing intensively in a planned manner.
However, water costs are high for supplying irrigation in his six poly-tunnels where his tomatoes, courgettes, watercress and cucumbers are carefully maintained, the rest of the crops - including onions, carrots, potatoes, are all outdoors.
"We have a well so most of the charge is for the pump, 19 cent an hour for 17 hours a day, but if we have a leak from the public supply in the top fields then you're in trouble," he said.
The GLAS scheme and TAMS II grant are also helping. "If you're organic it's really good because they'll grant aid toppers which is how we maintain the grasslands by cutting the seeds heads off and routinely topping the fields," he said.
Gillian Westbrook, general manager of IOFGA, was very impressed after her walk of Kilbrack Farm.
"The most impressive element is the lack of disease here and weed management, it's concentrated and that's what organics is all about whether you're growing vegetables or producing livestock and he has his green manure and cover crops mix just right," she said adding that she was particularly dazzled by his use of liquid seaweed and compost tea to get the best from his soil.
Despite his burgeoning success, Patrick has no desire to extend his business nationwide.
"Small is beautiful. You can be hands on. More and more times I'm trying to chase up paperwork and manage people so I realise there is a titration point where I can see it will swing and I'll be in an office but I'm not going to let that happen," he said.