Farm Ireland

Sunday 22 April 2018

Farming family on successfully combining tourism, beer and now pigs on their 100ac farm

Jillian Godsil

A recent Teagasc national survey from 2016 makes for stark reading on the question of sustainable farming incomes.

One third of all farmers surveyed were not viable, while another third only survive with off farm incomes. As a result it is increasingly common for farmers to look at less traditional ways of using their land to generate an income. The Williams family in Redcross, Wicklow, is one such example combining tourism, beer and now pigs in a creative mix.

They began their farming business in the last century via New Zealand. Grandfather John Williams worked in construction on the railways in New Zealand earning good money before he turned to Wicklow where he purchased a farm of 60 acres. His son Robert took over the farm and added a further 40 acres to the home farm and worked a mixture of tillage, beef and dairy too at one time.

Despite working on a busy farm, Robert’s wife Violet could not sit still. To supplement the farm’s income she decided to enter the tourism game and rented out the family home for the summer.

While profitable this enterprise was not congruent with farming and so in 1978, ten acres were set aside for a purpose build caravan and camping park. The tourism bug had been caught and was swiftly shared by their children – three boys and a daughter.

In the forty years that passed the family added piecemeal to River Valley Holiday park. Winters they farmed and planned new extensions, and Summers they welcomed increasing numbers of tourists. Growth was organic, slow and measured.

In 1990, 20 acres were taken from the farm to increase the amenities and attractions including foot golf, archery and a Sports Complex. In 2011 another tranche of land, again 20 acres, was planted in forestry proving the guests with scenic walks.

Also in 2011 they added Glamping with Kukoo Huts, Maxolodges and Tree-houses. Earlier this year the Tree-Houses took the award for 'the most innovative place to stay' at the Failte Ireland Tourism Awards.

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Back in 2002 Leigh joined the family and son Ashley working in the caravan park. Originally from Cavan she had worked for Trailfinders and expected to find herself traveling the world. Life and love intervened and instead she moved into rural Wicklow where she was tasked with modernising and updating the park’s restaurant.

‘When I first came to Redcross the restaurant opened for a couple of months over the summer for the visitors to the caravan park,’ says Leigh. ‘It was my job to extend it.’

Again the growth of the hospitality side grew organically. ‘We found we were opening for more months, for longer hours and feeding more people. We bought a derelict shop on the main street next to our building and knocked through walls to create more space.’

Gradually Mickey Finn's Pub & Restaurant grew in popularity winning Sky Tourist Pub of the Year in 2015. ‘We had Robert’s old workshop at the back of the pub and restaurant and wondered what we could use that for,’ says Leigh. It turns out that their visitors were demanding local craft beer.

‘At first we thought we’d just produce some local brew so we could offer it to our visitors, but we became hooked on the process.  Soon we were visiting German beer festivals, hiring brewing operatives and installing large vats in which to brew the beer. The Wicklow Brewery was born.

‘We wanted our visitors to see where we made the beer and it has proved a huge attraction,’ says Leigh.

The first beers were made in 2014 and now they are now available in more than 50 venues across Wicklow. ‘The Wicklow hotels and hostelries have been very supportive,’ says Leigh. ‘They really support our product and see us as fellow promoters rather than competitors.

They now have a range of well-respected beers that are widely recognised across the county. Brews include Wicklow Helles (Munich Larger), St Kevin's Red (Irish Red Ale), Wicklow Weiss (Wheat Beer), HopKnut (Irish pale Ale), GingerKnut (Ginger Infused Beer), Black 16 (Coffee & Vanilla Stout) and WB-40 (Dark IPA).

In August 2016 they entered their HopKnut Pale Ale into a major craft beer competition in London. To their delight it bagged first place, winning a gold trophy in the under 5% Ale category. It was the first time an Irish craft beer has won trophy at this event.

Now that they have conquered Wicklow, they have signed up a nationwide distributor to push the beers across the country.

‘We have only just signed this deal so it will take some time to roll out,’ says Leigh. ‘Like all our projects we grow organically which takes longer but it also means we get to enjoy the journey.’

Tourism may be in the blood now – Ashley’s brother Lloyd runs the popular Hidden Valley and Christmas Island in Rathdrum –but farming never really leaves the family. Leigh hails from a farming background too; her father was a cattle dealer in Cavan. So it seems natural that their current, successful endeavour should lead them back to farming.

‘We brew 3000 hectolitres of beer every year,’ says Leigh. ‘It takes 250 Kilos of grain mixed with our own well water to produce every 15HL brew. After we extract the wort for the beer we have the spent grain left as a by-product. We are giving that away to a local farmer and his animal stock love it.

On the home farm, there are still the empty slatted sheds from the beef production era, so they are looking into filling these sheds again.

'Currently we are looking into the possibility of using the fermented grain to feed pigs, so there is no waste.  In time, we intend to link up with a local butcher and create our very own Wicklow Brewery sausages to serve in our brewery restaurant. It has come full circle.’

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