Thursday 29 September 2016

Here's a 21st Century take on the traditional family farm

Kildare Farm Foods is an example of intelligent entrepreneurship at its very best. They know what's working and they know when to diversify

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

David Sexton of Kildare Farm Foods Open Farm and Shop in Duneany, Rathmuck, Co Kildare. Photo: Steve Humphreys
David Sexton of Kildare Farm Foods Open Farm and Shop in Duneany, Rathmuck, Co Kildare. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Kildare Farm Foods, which is based at David Sexton's third generation family farm in Rathmuck, Co Kildare, is no ordinary business.

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Since taking up farming during his late teens David, like his father before him, has been keen to expand and improve, which may explain why Kildare Farm Food's offerings today are so multifaceted.

Over the last two decades, David has moved from rearing turkeys to processing, cold storage and distribution, and more recently into retail with Kildare Farm Foods' latest venture - a shop and free open farm, which has become a hugely popular family and tourist destination, employing more than 40 people.

"My grandparents came here to the farm from the West of Ireland. It was a Land Commission holding - just a few small houses built by the Land Commission back when they were dividing up the big estates from the landlords," David explains.

"That is where it began. So my grandparents had a very small farm and my father also worked as a farm labourer on another farm to top up the income."

David describes his father, who now works in a semi-retired role at Kildare Farm Foods, as an "extremely progressive and energetic" person who has always had "aspirations to be a bigger farmer".

"He wanted to be a full-time farmer and grow, so he got into things that were not really mainstream at the time and turkeys were one of these," David explains.

"He was a dairy farmer, he kept some horses, he kept some cattle, he also bought pigs from all the other local farmers. He had a little weighbridge, so he used to bring them on to the factories or bring them to the sales and he would turn money from that, but with turkeys he found that he could get into things without a lot of land."

Inspired by his father's progressive approach, David grew up deeply involved in the family's growing farming business.

"I wanted to do nothing but farming; I wanted more cows, more of anything that I could get my hands on," David remembers. "It was the early 1990s and a tough enough time - but I was as determined as my father and I wanted to progress. There was great potential in the turkeys because there were no quotas or restrictions, all you needed was enough money to build a shed and have a small amount of ground, so I went at it hell for leather and put in as many turkeys as I could, even before I finished school."

David did well in school, despite the fact that he only had eyes for farming. After his Leaving Certificate, his parents allowed him to attend agricultural college under one condition; that he would go on and do a degree after he had finished.

David agreed and returned from his year at agricultural college to farm by day and study accountancy by night for the following four years.

"The turkeys became very profitable; turkey wasn't just for Christmas anymore, it was in carvery restaurants, which were now springing up all over Ireland too," David says.

Soon, David was supplying huge orders of turkeys, mainly to the hospitality industry.

"Within a year, it just took off. We couldn't keep up with the demand," he says. "So we expanded and it continued to a point where we were going into the millions in turnover within a few years, which was extraordinary."

"It flew for a few years. However, in the late 1990s the market worldwide opened up - and European products started to come into Ireland and the European product was in some cases half the price of our product," David adds.

"I spent a few years trying to go against the grain and question the quality, but it turned out that the European stuff was actually as good, not locally grown and produced, but often a fantastic quality product from countries who had a long history of poultry farming."

David managed to maintain a level of presence in the market by focusing on his service and adding the distribution of a number of other products to his company's offering.

"We started to sell chicken instead of just turkey, then a customer said 'is there any chance you'd get me a few chips?' so we'd do that and then it was bread rolls and it went on and on. We currently have about 3,000 different product lines now," David explains. "At the same time this was all happening, we reduced down the amount of slaughtering we did and the number of turkeys we were selling and we then decided that we would take a look at stopping the slaughtering and specialise moreso in the marketing of the product, the distribution and the portioning in-house; further processing the raw material from the slaughterhouse.

"So we scaled down our own slaughtering operation and at the same time we built cold storage - converting the existing turkey houses - and in 2004-2005 we built a combined cold store to hold about 550 pallets of product, which also had a boning hall, packing rooms and specialised tracing equipment," David adds. "By so doing, we found that we were again able to hold our own and grow again."

However, more obstacles were on the way for Kildare Farm Foods; when the Irish economy fell off a financial cliff in 2007, a large number of their regular customers could not pay their outstanding debts.

"We had accounts everywhere, in every restaurant and hotel that you can think of within 50 to 100 miles of here - and unfortunately, when the economy nose-dived, almost everybody caught us for money.

"And it wasn't small amounts, it was several hundred thousand," David explains. "While it was disastrous, we had been in business quite a while, so we had built up a certain durability - we had some money in the war chest, so to speak.

"We decided that we would step back from all of these hospitality-type accounts at that point and while this was all going on, I had a plan that I would be able to further process products for other distributors," David adds.

"So suddenly we had guys who would have been our competition at the very start coming to us because we found that we could portion these products for them and brand them with their name on it, in a very cost-effective way. So we went back to what we had been doing originally really, which was cutting up white meat products and getting our hands dirty."

Again Kildare Farm Foods managed to return to form and by carving this niche in the wholesale and food servicing market for themselves, they managed to once again double their turnover within two years.

As well as the more profitable sides to his business, for a number of years David opened a farm shop counter each Saturday morning at the premises in Rathmuck where he would sell produce directly to the public.

"It sometimes seemed like a total waste of time to be honest, but I kept it going because I would never drop anything. If I thought there was even €50 in it, I would continue to do it because you never know where the potential is," David says.

On the next occasion that David decided to expand the premises, he included a purpose-built, 15 foot by 15 foot shop space in the plan.

"For some reasons, Christmas 2007 saw a huge upsurge in interest in the shop - people flooded in and we sold 10 times the turkeys we had before and when people came in they'd also buy other products - cranberry sauce, glazed ham. It was fantastic," David says.

"January came then and we slipped back into our routine, but we had a small Falabella pony in the field here in front of the shop. I hadn't taken any notice of it really, but I saw this little girl crying one Saturday morning when she was going out the door with her grandmother.

"I went out after her with an ice cream and the grandmother told me she was crying because they had been coming every Saturday to look at the pony and the child was distraught that it wasn't there that particular morning. So I thought then there might be something in that."

This event planted a seed in David's mind; he would add value to his products by giving something back to the customers, an experience, and it would be free.

"I thought that if we had something like that, that you could come in and feed the animals and walk through the shop and back out through, then surely if we were good enough at our jobs we'd be able to sell people something," David smiles.

And with that, Kildare Farm Foods open farm and shop was born.

"One thing led to another, we spent about €250,000 doing it because we wanted to do it right and have it so that you could use it every day of the year," David explains.

"We gutted the place and shut for a week, then we reopened on Easter Saturday and it just exploded in popularity. We opened every day after that, firstly just in the afternoons and then all day every day."

The premises has since been expanded again, with a cafe added in 2014 and an extension to the open farm, which is now home to wallabies, mara, pigs, goats, ponies, deer and ostriches among others, a party room, an indoor 18-hole crazy golf experience and the 'Adventure Rail Road' - a train which departs from the Farm Shop station for a spin around the farm several times a day.

"We will keep changing and making it different all the time," David says. "We are always trying to create a relaxed, customer-friendly environment and you can never underestimate that feel-good factor."

David's wife, who was previously an IT consultant with Deloitte, now works full-time in the business also.

"There is very little differentiation between work and life; it is our life and we like it that way," David says. "We reinvest every cent and more. Food is not an easy business, it is competitive and it can be a hard slog, so you have to constantly change and adapt."

More information at www.kildarefarmfoods.com

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