'There is a great future for farmers who are adding value to their milk'

Jim O'Brien cheesemaker. Photo: Liam Burke
Jim O'Brien cheesemaker. Photo: Liam Burke

Ken Whelan

Limerick dairy farmer Jim O'Brien is on a "career break" from running the home farm and is flat out developing his O'Brien Artisan Farmhouse Cheese enterprise which is being well received in Munster and, in small quantities thus far, in the Middle East.

"I decided to take a career break five years ago and leave the running of the dairy herd to my son James, and go into the cheesemaking business, and so far, things are going well," says Jim (65), who has 180 acres at Hazel Cottage Farm in Ballyhahill, between Foynes and Tarbert.

"We won a cheese award last year at the Kerrygold Food Festival in Listowel, and sales to restaurants in Kerry and Limerick are going well.

"We retain 10pc of our milk for the cheesemaking."

Cheddar, brie and feta-style salad cheeses are being produced. The enterprise, which stands 130 head of British Friesian with some Jersey crosses, supplies the rest of the milk to the Kerry Group.

Jim started farming at the age of 15 when his father John Snr had a heart attack and had to step back from front-line farming, and Jim's education was put on hold so he could fill the breach.

The farm was only 25 acres back then but Jim gradually built it up, and by the age of 21 had resumed his education to achieve a diploma in Social and Rural studies - which may explain his entrepreneurial streak today.

"We ran pigs at the time but that became unprofitable and we diverted into dairying and gradually built up the farm," he says.

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"When I was 21, my mother brought me into the local bank and set up a £1,000 overdraft for me and ever since I have been owing money to the banks. I am not complaining - the banks are good."

Jim has an original view on the economics of dairy farming and the relationship between farmers and the banks.

"Put simply, 30 of the cows are mine and the other 100 are the bank's," he laughs.

Jim is not a man to do things half-heartedly and he is thoroughly engrossed in his new cheese enterprise to the extent that he was an adjudicator at last week's Irish Quality Food and Drinks awards in Dublin, having just returned from an artisan food conference in Sweden.

"I enjoy meeting new customers for our cheese at food fairs, and I find that once we make a connection with new customers, they tend to stay with us," Jim adds.

"There is a great future for Irish farmers adding value to their milk. The golden tint of our butter and cheeses are loved by Europeans."

Certainly that's the feedback he is getting from his customers, especially the German and American tourist who come to the family's on-farm holiday home which is run by Jim's wife Marie, who he describes as an "absolute Trojan" when it comes to helping with the cows, cheeses and tourists.

They have four children - John is an electrician, James is the farmer, Gemma is a teacher in Ennis and Sarah is a lecturer in history and English at Trinity College and the author of two books on the Irish diaspora in Europe and Argentina.

Jim says James qualified as an accountant but found the work so boring that he begged to get back to the farm: "This work is driving me mad," he told Jim, who gladly acceded to his request.

Off-farm, Jim's only interest is cheese and the brain-melting Brexit process which he predicts will be "ironed out- eventually".

Indo Farming

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