'I knew I couldn't make a living by keeping the farm'
On Good Friday in 1992, Billy Kelly had a decision to make - continue the mixed enterprise at the family farm in Streamstown near Mullingar, Co Westmeath, or literally "branch out" and develop the 35-acre holding into a nursery, which was more in tune with his horticultural qualification.
He had just taken over the family farm after the passing of his dad Bill and it was a "poser" for the youngest of the seven Kelly siblings.
Billy, who has a horticultural qualification from Warrenstown agricultural college, opted for the nursery and hasn't looked back since - despite some tough times for the enterprise during the financial collapse of 2008 and the desperately cold weather the midlands suffered in 2010, which nearly destroyed the business.
Today, Billy (52) runs the thriving Kelly Nursery on 27 acres of the home farm along with his sister Eileen, employing 18 people - or, as he likes to say, "I support some 17 families in the area and export some 30pc of the nursery stock to Britain annually".
His company provided the security hedging for the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, in 2013, and Billy can boast that his nursery products adorn William Shakespeare's House and Garden in Stratford-upon-Avon.
He also delivers his products to the nearby Tayto Park, to say nothing of his celebrity clients, who live in upmarket locations like Dalkey in Co Dublin.
The nursery is also approved to provide products for farmers in GLAS.
But most of his stock goes to Irish and British nurseries and Billy is currently trying to expand his continental business with the help of Bord Bia.
"When I took over the farm it was a mixed operation with sheep, cows, a horse, a dog, turkeys and a bit of tillage but I knew I couldn't make a living and rear a family on the 35 acres," recalls Billy.
"So I went into the nursery business and started off with three small polyhouses, gradually building the business up over the years."
At the moment, he is putting the finishing touches to a ¤700,000 five-acre extension to the nursery, which should cover the remaining acreage of his farm with his conifers, laurels and Portuguese laurels, which he produces for foreign and domestic markets on a strict 12-month cycle.
"Returns at the moment are a bit flat in the Irish market but we have good customers in Britain and we are going to the international trade fair for plants in Essen, Germany to promote our nursery", says Billy - the trade fair is taking place this week.
He admits to having some lucky and some unlucky times in business since that Good Friday in 1992 - his luckiest break being when he told his bank manager not to bother him with his investment advice on stocks and shares just a year before the economic crash. "I told him 'I'll ring you when I want to make an investment not the other way round'," says Billy.
He was unluckiest in the before-mentioned winter of 2010 when the temperatures in Streamstown fell to -19C, wiping out his nursery stock for the year - "That nearly finished me," says Billy, who is married to Majella.
They have three children - Caoimhe (20) is a university student, Eoin (18) is taking a year off to work at the nursery before going to college, and Katie (12) is attending the local national school.
His main off-farm interests are inevitably the GAA - he played in every position for his local St Joseph's team and currently trains with the club - and golf.
He plays the game as often as he can and is a member of the Esker Hills golf club in the midlands, where he is friendly with the Lowry family.
When Shane Lowry won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, Billy had a ¤25 each-way bet on the golfer at what he thought was 3,000/1 with his local bookmaker - who settled the wager at 1,000/1.
"I was happy, but you get the impression that the higher odds would have made a good dint in the weather catastrophe of 2010," says Billy.
In conversation with Ken Whelan
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