Sunday 24 September 2017

Find your silver lining on clouds of recession

How to beat the downturn, make some extra cash -- and find a new hobby. By Susan Daly

Susan Daly

No one likes to mention the R-word in polite conversation, but the reality is that the recession is beginning to hit. Two holidays a year, a heavily mortgaged home, and a spend-spend lifestyle come at a cost that we may soon not be able to pay..

However, there may be a silver lining to the clouds gathering on the horizon. Instead of thinking of the downside of the downturn -- the cutting back, the belt-tightening -- we could perhaps use it as a chance to overhaul our lifestyles.

We may rediscover the joy of cooking a meal from scratch. One of Amazon's best-selling cookbooks this year has been Eating For Victory, a reproduction of 1940s pamphlets that instructed readers how to create healthy, inexpensive family meals on wartime rations, and the food they could grow in their own back gardens.

And doesn't a head-clearing walk to the bus stop or a cycle past lanes of stressed-out commuters sound more attractive than sweating it out in an overheated, pricey gym?

Instability in the jobs market, too, is causing people to look at alternative streams of income. This can unleash a hidden talent: some people make extra cash -- and find a new passion in their life in the process.

Offaly man Andrew McGuinness, 37, set a course for the life he wanted when he began to tap into the potential of his bee-keeping hobby to become more than a pastime. He studied chemistry in UCG and became a quality manager in a factory in Athlone but, like his father and his grandfather before him, kept a few hives at home in Clara.

"Of course the thought was that I might make a bit of money on the side with this," says Andrew. "Five years ago, I had expanded so much that I had started to do farmers' markets to sell the produce."

Andrew began to see that the growing demand for natural products was making his bee-keeping profitable. He also began to use his science degree and skills picked up from his day job to create honey-based products, so that he wasn't just relying on pure honey sales.

"The following year, I started making beeswax candles and cosmetic products," says Andrew.

"Now my mum makes a range of chutneys with the honey in them and my dad helps me make the beekeeping equipment that we also sell -- it's a real cottage industry."

In July last year, after much agonising, Andrew gave up his company job to run his honey business, Meadowsweet Apiaries, full-time. Rather than fear an impending recession, Andrew is happy that he is now master of his own fortunes.

"I'm not dependent on any company any more, it's up to myself to carve out my own career. And the harder you work, the more reward you get out of it," he says.

Working smart is as important as working hard, though, and Andrew has been thinking up ways to make his business as recession-proof as possible.

"Diversifying is the key," he advises, "the bees are so weather-dependent, so last year was a flop and this year is looking pretty miserable. But then I'm not relying on the pure honey in particular."

He has also priced his products reasonably, with a 50ml jar of skin cream costing just e6.

"People are going to start rowing back when they have less money to spare, so I make sure my prices are reasonable," he says.

"You have to adapt very quickly and move on if something's not working -- that's how people are going to keep their heads above water in the coming years."

Suzie and Mike Cahn have been thinking ahead for years. The couple live in Wicklow town with their four children -- Eli, 14; Rosa, 11; Sammy, 8; and Finn, 6 -- but their heart is in the countryside where they run Carraig Dulra farm.

"Five years ago we started to see that something was going to have to give," says Suzie, 42. "The boomtime, the lending, 100pc mortgages -- that wasn't going to be sustainable. At the time, we lived a fairly regular lifestyle. We had a mortgage and were hooked into jobs to pay that off. Mike was working in a software company in Dublin and commuting, and I was lecturing (Suzie is a trained art therapist) and working at home."

They were both interested in environmental matters, and Suzie had already begun cutting the family's food bill by keeping chickens and growing produce in their back garden.

"We had been thinking of extending our house -- we had even gone so far as to get plans drawn up, but my gut told me no. So we rented out our house instead, loaded the kids and us into an old Volkswagen camper van and went off to explore how others were living a more sustainable life," says Suzie.

They were impressed by the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) movement.

Volunteers travel to these farms and offer their labour and skills in return for food and accommodation.

When the Cahn clan finally touched down back in Ireland, they decided to sell their house to free themselves from the yoke of rising interest rates.

They ploughed some of the money into developing an organic smallholding on the side of Carraig Mountain, near Glenealy in Co Wicklow.

"Rent is our now our biggest expense, but even then we downsized to a much smaller house and decluttered our lives. We recycled, we sold off things," says Suzie.

The family will eventually hope to build their own home, but are focused for now on getting the Carraig project on a firm footing.

The produce provided by the land at Carraig means that the family rarely have to visit a shop for groceries, "except for milk and cheese. I don't buy processed food, and we eat what is in season," explains Suzie. Even in midwinter, the farm provides broccoli, cabbages and stored veg like pumpkins.

"In the bathroom, there are very few beauty products -- maybe one shampoo, soap. We use bicarbonate of soda for cleaning the house."

Mike, 43, has also set up a buyers' group to buy wholefoods in bulk -- this is much cheaper than buying the same items in a health-food shop, where they can carry a heavy mark-up.

The family gets around on electric bikes. "Yes, we've drastically cut our bills, but we're not doing this for profit," says Suzie.

Instead, the Cahns are hoping that their initiatives on Carraig will help others to learn the importance of "re-skilling" in a world where, Suzie says, "we are in some ways very educated, but on a practical level, are pretty disabled".

To this end, the couple run a Living Skills bank which brings in expert tutors to run courses on everything from limestone plastering to gardening.

"We don't want to set ourselves up as holier-than-thou," insists Suzie.

"We're just trying to figure it all out because life, as it is now, isn't working for everyone. It's a wonderful opportunity to choose the lifestyle you want."

A new quality of life was a positive spin-off for Pat Cullen, 56, when he began looking at options to supplement his income. He took early retirement from his job in an insurance company some years ago.

"I registered with a jobs website for some part-time work," explains Pat, from Naas, Co Kildare.

"I couldn't believe it when they emailed me back wondering if I I'd be interested in being a movie extra."

Within a month, Pat was on the set of hit TV programme The Tudors.

"I started off on day one as one of the bishops who had their heads chopped off by Henry the Eighth (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

"And then I was a beggar in the afternoon," laughs Pat.

"Then I became a merchant selling pheasants and after that I played a middle-class gentleman.

"I've never spoken to Jonathan because he's fierce busy, but he does come up all the time and say 'hello' to people," says Pat.

"He's an extremely nice guy and to watch him act, well, he'd send a shiver up your spine."

Pat did, however, get to rub shoulders with an even sexier star than Rhys Meyers.

"I met Kim Cattrall (of Sex And The City fame) when I was in My Boy Jack, the film they made about Rudyard Kipling's son."

Pat was sitting in the royal box in a theatre scene with the English actor Julian Wadham, who was playing King George V, and Kim Cattrall's character was sitting in the opposite facing box.

They were having a great time, chatting away, and afterwards he stopped to talk to Kim.

"So I was the bold thing and stuck out my hand to her and said: 'I'm the king's right-hand man!' She said: 'I know -- I've been sitting across from you all day.'

"She is a very pretty woman and has a lovely presence."

The flat rate for a day's work is e86, but extras earn more for overtime and they receive all their meals.

"The food is terrific -- we get the same caterers as the main cast," says Pat.

Pat hopes to continue his new life as a movie extra but says, by their nature, extras can't become too recognisable.

"The best description I've heard of it is that you're background clutter. Half the time you only have to walk around and look a bit dumb," he laughs.

"My family think it's marvellous. I'm 56 years of age and I drove a desk for 30 years. Not many exciting things happen to you.

"I only wish I had started doing this sooner!"

n Beekeeping summer schools are run by the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Association in Gormanston, Co Meath. For more details and for local branches see www.irishbeekeeping.ie

n Check out www.dulra.org for more info on Mike and Suzie Cahn's Carraig Dulra project, the Living Skills bank and the courses they run.

n The Ardmore Studios-based company movieextras.ie are holding their annual Open Days to recruit new members this weekend at the Westbury Hotel, off Grafton Street, Dublin. No need to book, just turn up today from midday to 6pm; tomorrow, 10am to 6pm; or Sunday from midday to 6pm.

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