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Dairymaster just one player in nationwide industry

Causeway, 16 miles north of Tralee with a population of 251, doesn't exactly qualify as a manufacturing hotspot.

However, the success of milking parlour manufacturers, Dairymaster, in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards has changed all that.

Many commentators marvelled at the success of a company that employs over 300 and exports its machines all over the world.

After all, there's not too many Irish engineering firms that can claim to have captured 25pc of the German market in the last decade.

But Dairymaster is actually only part of a particularly Irish phenomenon – that of a series of agri-engineering hubs located in all kinds of unlikely locations across the country.

It may be something to do with the inherent rural nature of farming enterprises, but the list of examples is growing.

Take the two Mayo towns of Ballinrobe and Ballyhaunis for example. The former is home to McHale Engineering, set up by brothers Pauric and Martin McHale over 30 years ago. One of the first machines that they specialised in was a product of their surroundings. The silage bale-wrapper was a perfect compromise for smaller, dry-stock farmers that didn't need a big pit of silage to see them through the winter.

But it was the wet, hilly conditions of the west that proved the making of the company, with their machinery built to a heavier spec than much of the competition.

Today, McHale employ 180 at their premises in Ballinrobe, have annual sales to over 40 countries topping €80m, and expect to continue growing at a rate of up to 20pc a year.

One of these companies in any small Irish town is a bonus. But the can-do culture of these self-starters trickles down to the staff as well. That's why after 10 years with McHale, Mike Malone decided to set up his own firm.

He is now making everything from slurry tankers for locals to pineapple pickers for Costa Rican conglomerates. Again sales are rising rapidly. From €2m in 2011, Mr Malone expects to hit €5m next year with staff numbers creeping up to 30.

Down the road, in Ballyhaunis, the Murphys are rapidly establishing another agri-engineering empire. John and Mark Murphy set up Major engineering in the Seventies. Now their nephews have started their own business –Agri-spread – fabricating fertiliser spreaders in the same town.

Replication

What is happening in Mayo is simply a replication of what has been going on in Carlow for decades. What started with a hub of innovative fitters based around the sugar factory in the Midlands has spawned businesses such as Cross Engineering, Keenans, Tanco and Hi-Spec.

The quiet village of Dromone on the Meath-Cavan border might be the next hub. Dromone Engineering landed a €10m contract during the summer to produce hitches for one of the world's largest tractor manufacturers, Agco. The contract will help cement the 100-plus jobs already provided by the company.

Down the road, Hand engineering has started to manufacture 'zero-grazers' – basically trailers with mowers attached. Again, it's an idea spawned by brutal Irish summers. Farmers can cut and draw fresh grass to their livestock, regardless of what the weather is like or how fragmented their farm is.

Enterprise Ireland estimates that their 30 or so agricultural machinery manufacturing clients export close to €250m of equipment a year, employ 1,000 people in some of our most economically vulnerable areas and, best of all, are growing sales at a ferocious rate.

Crucially, the sales aren't based on the fact that we're cheapest. Often, the Irish machine is commanding a 30pc premium over its indigenous rival in export markets.

The fact is, we are producing a product that's better than anyone else. Well done Dairymaster, but let's hear it for the rest of our agri-engineering champs.

Indo Business