Muckers are making hay and money once again
Farming, the forgotten sector of the Celtic Tiger, is the new cool with a crop of entrepreneurs, writes Maeve Sheehan
Published 26/02/2012 | 05:00
Meet Eve Armstrong: young, smart and politically engaged. She champions Macra Na Feirme and sits on a European committee on sheep and goat meat.
When she's not running triathlons, she tends to cattle and sheep on her bachelor uncles' farm in Straffan, Co Kildare, where she grew up, and keeps horses on the side.
She used to be taunted on the school bus for being a mucker and her friends thought her mad when she signed up for agricultural college. She went on to do a degree and worked briefly as an investment banker before returning to her calling. But these days she is enjoying a new-found status: "I used to say 'I'm in farming' and I'd get laughed at, frowned upon even. You'd have to say 'I do have a degree, you know'," she says. "The only appeal farming had in the Celtic Tiger days was for the price of land. Now the tables have turned. I was at a hunt ball and when I said I was a farmer, a girl said 'I have so much respect for you'."
Farming, it seems, is the new cool. When the rest of the country boomed, farming was in recession. Now that developers and bankers have left the country nursing a multi-billion euro hangover, farmers are enjoying a renaissance.
Agricultural colleges are booming and membership of Macra Na Feirme was up 16 per cent last year, an unexpected surge for the farming youth group long derided by city folk.
The price of agricultural land rose by 20 per cent last year. The price of milk rose 8 per cent last year, cattle by 18 per cent and lamb has gone through the roof. In all, food and drink exports surged by 12 per cent generating €8.85bn for the economy, according to Bord Bia. Things are so good that farm incomes rose by 27 per cent last year, according to Central Statistics Office figures released last Friday. Their average earnings are now €21,500 -- that's well below the industrial average but then again, around half of all farmers have another income on top of that.
Farming will "never blow the lights out in terms of driving growth in the economy", says economist Jim Power. The sector is too tough, too competitive and the margins are too low. Farming is cyclical, volatile and more vulnerable than most to the ripple effect of climate change. A drought in Russia can wipe out the profits of a poultry farm in Monaghan, because it causes the price of feed to soar. The effects of the harsh snows in Europe remain unknown. The Irish Farmers' Association warns of rising prices: fuel, fertiliser, feed. Milk prices are predicted to fall 7 per cent and while sheep and cattle prices rose last year, so did the cost of keeping them.
But in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Power says, agriculture has replaced the construction boom as the mainstay of local communities. "During the Celtic Tiger it was totally neglected. In the 1990s we had the multinationals. In the 2000s we had the boom in the construction sector and financial services. I think in the last couple of years there has been a very strong recognition of the role it plays. It is a very indigenous, high value-added industry," says Power.
The kickback for local communities is that the more farmers spend on agricultural output, the more money is generated for their local communities. Farmers sell 65 per cent of their goods within a 40km radius and according to Teagasc, generate €4.5bn in local trade.
Big companies like Glanbia, Kerry and Dairygold are outperforming other sectors and the meat barons like the Goodmans and the Queallys are shooting up the annual rich lists. Some of the biggest success stories of the farming boom are to be found in the small artisan producers. The Maher family, who make Cooleeney cheese on their farm outside Moyne, Co Tipperary, have seen sales soar by 35 per cent since the recession hit. Breda Maher started making the cheese in 1986 in order to use up the milk produced by their herd. The business has moved from the kitchen to a purpose-built plant on the farm and their production has increased from two to three tonnes of cheese a week for supply to specialist stores in the UK, America, Europe. Last week they exhibited their cheese at a trade show in Dubai. The family employs 13 people locally in a parish of about 400 but there is also a knock-on effect for local tradesmen, plumbers and electricians, according to Pat Maher, (39), who now manages the farm while his mother runs the cheese business. When the credit crunch hit, supermarkets wanted lower prices, the margins narrowed. But the business continues to be profitable.
"Ireland is a brilliant country for producing milk. We should be one of the top milk producers in the world. I think there will be big, big changes when quotas go," says Pat Maher. "We grow good grass and cheaply and we should be able to use that to produce."
Tom Keogh, (32), typifies the new breed of farming entrepreneur with his family's recently launched gourmet Irish crisp. The Keoghs have been growing vegetables in Oldtown in north Dublin for 200 years and a decade ago, he joined the family business at a time when most of his friends went into trades to capitalise on the construction boom. He is involved with his father, Peter, and his three brothers. They grew tomatoes, cucumber, sweetcorn, cabbage and broccoli but cheap imports drove them out of those sectors. Potatoes were the hardy reliable. His father bought a potato washer in the Eighties, cold storage in the Nineties and when Tom went into the business, the wholesale market was dying off and supermarkets were buying direct. They got through the recession supplying potatoes to Superquinn.
He came up with the idea for crisps when he thought
of exporting Irish spuds to Irish Americans on the east coast of the US.
He found a supplier willing to take them but his scheme was torpedoed by customs: the only way he could get potatoes into the US was if they were cooked first. After years of market research the family launched Keogh's crisps in November: the sales pitch is that they are the only crisp grown, cooked and packaged on-farm and one of the few genuine Irish gourmet crisps.
It's early days but last week, Tom was working on his first order to the US and hopes to get the product into Tesco, a gateway to the UK. They invested €750,000 but got backing from the local enterprise board and their bank. In a way, it's payback time.
"During the boom it was very hard for us to get employees. You'd be begging people to drive a tractor for you," said Tom. "We were seen as the idiot farmers because there was so much money to be made in other areas. The price of land was so high that the cost of renting ground became so high. . . People would walk on to the farm and ask us to sell a site: land was going for €63,000 an acre; it's €10,000 to €12,000 for good agricultural land now," he says. "We were never tempted to sell. At the end of the day, we are here 200 years or more."
The challenge for smaller food producers is how to grow their business without losing their brands. Some don't want to. Pat Lalor sold his organic oat crop to a miller to make porridge before setting up his own brand. Kilbeggan Organic Porridge is now available in specialist food stores including Dean and DeLuca's in New York. He doesn't employ anyone -- yet. He doesn't expect his product to be stocked in "every shop in the country" because he doesn't intend to mass-produce it. But he will make money out of it. He wonders why more of the country's 120,000 farmers aren't doing the same. Setting up any business requires money, though. But that old Yorkshire saying has come around again: where there's muck, there's brass.
One of the spin-offs from the farming boom after the construction bust is that moneymen are now sniffing around. Investors who would have put their money elsewhere during the boom, are now looking for opportunities in food and agriculture. Large accountancy firms are recruiting agricultural and food specialists for their investment teams, according to Teagasc. "You certainly wouldn't have heard of that a few years ago," said David Meredith of Teagasc.