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Forced to close down his piggery, this Kilkenny farmer turned to glamping to save his farm

After Ken Walsh was forced to close down his piggery, he set up a glamping site on his picturesque Co Kilkenny farm - and the key to his success has been targeting the right audience

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Branching out: Ken Walsh outside one of his pods at Brandon Hill Camping, Graigue-namanagh, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Patrick Browne

Branching out: Ken Walsh outside one of his pods at Brandon Hill Camping, Graigue-namanagh, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Patrick Browne

Ken in a pod with his children Cormac (5) and Elise (8)
Photo: Patrick Browne

Ken in a pod with his children Cormac (5) and Elise (8) Photo: Patrick Browne

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Branching out: Ken Walsh outside one of his pods at Brandon Hill Camping, Graigue-namanagh, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Patrick Browne

In 2008, Ken Walsh had little choice but to close down the piggery founded by his late father, Liam. The fundamentals underpinning the pig farm were no longer sustainable and, try as he might, there was no way to save the business that had been his family's bread and butter for nearly 50 years.

Though the piggery had to go, Ken was determined that the land would not go with it. He enrolled in a night course organised by Teagasc and, little by little, he began to build a new plan for his farm.

The answer was Brandon Hill Camping, a glamping and camping site which used all the natural advantages of his picturesque farm in Graiguenamanagh to their fullest.

Nestled beneath the Blackstairs Mountains, with the River Barrow running through it, the site has fast become a favourite for tourists and nature lovers.

"People were coming to the town to do the fantastic walks along the Barrow, passing our gate doing the South Leinster Way, walking Brandon Hill, cycling, water sports and swimming and then they were getting back in their cars and driving off to their accommodation somewhere else," Ken says.

"So I said to myself, we have a great site with great views. We could provide good value accommodation to suit people's budget and increase their time spent in Graiguenamanagh so the area would get more footfall into the shops, restaurants and businesses."

Mission

Ken was part of a fact-finding mission organised by Kilkenny Local Development Company (LEADER) who travelled to Fort William in Scotland to see first hand how a small rural community can embrace tourism.

"I saw Graiguenamanagh as a mini-Fort William. They had cleverly marketed it as the outdoor capital of the UK, which was genius I thought," he says.

"We opened our gate in June of 2018, after a crazy push of painting by friends and family. Then the sun just started shining, and while the weather was affecting silage and crops a lot, it was driving people to camping and glamping, so I got a great start to the business."

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Ken in a pod with his children Cormac (5) and Elise (8)
Photo: Patrick Browne

Ken in a pod with his children Cormac (5) and Elise (8) Photo: Patrick Browne

Ken in a pod with his children Cormac (5) and Elise (8) Photo: Patrick Browne

Along with the hot summer of 2018, a strong social media presence was key to the early success of Brandon Hill Camping. According to Ken, the time spent learning how to use social media allowed him to promote his business directly to his target customers.

"I really don't know how I would have started this business 10 or 15 years ago without Facebook, Instagram or Twitter," he says.

"It would have cost a small fortune [to advertise] in local newspapers, radio and other campaigns and I still don't think it would have reached the right people for me.

"Every business needs to look very seriously at their online presence to make sure they're keeping up with everything. But it's really difficult as you spend a lot of time promoting the business online, and that generally happens at quieter times of the day when you probably should be taking a break from the day's work."

Indeed, the long hours required to run a successful glamping site is something Ken had not expected before opening the business.

"I was very well prepared before I started. The only real surprise is the amount of time that you need to spend onsite. You really have to be constantly here. People come at all different times so you need to be here," he says.

"There is always a lot to be done. I'd be up in the morning at 6.0 or 6.30, making sure the place is clean before people start getting up, and I'd be closing up after midnight every night. During the summer, it is very long hours.

"But it is enjoyable work. Meeting people is great, but it does put a strain on the time that you have for family.

"We don't close at all. I didn't book anyone in Christmas week this year, but other than that we've had people there every weekend. We get couples and young families who come for a few nights and are looking for something different. It's all year round. We're had people staying with us all through the winter."

Ken also believes that understanding what will work in your own area is key for any farmer who is looking to diversify.

"For anyone looking at farm diversification, the first thing to look at is not what worked for someone else in some other county or area, but to critically assess your own area," he says.

"And to ask questions such as where your land and buildings are and to see the pros and cons of what natural infrastructure and amenities are there first, are people coming to your area already and if not why not?

"And then always ask the question, what does the customer want and who are they?"


'We ran a pig farm, so the planners were happy for me to go into something else!'

Farm diversification: Ken Walsh

What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?

"Initially I was looking at close to €100,000 but I scaled it back a good bit. I'd say I had the place up and running for €55,000 or €60,000.

"A lot of that was ground works and a new sewerage system - there was a lot of money spent underground on work that can't be seen."

Was financing readily available from the banks for this sort of business?

"Financing was very easy to get from the banks but it was all about putting in the initial work before you go near the banks.

"Fáilte Ireland and LEADER were great help in getting a business plan together. You need to get your figures down on pen and paper early and see do they add up.

"But you can keep updating it - I probably did four versions of the business plan before I went to the bank. So it was a very smooth process once I had done that."

Was planning permission required and if so was it difficult to get?

"We ran a pig farm here for more than 40 years so, to be honest, the planners were very happy for me to go away from the pigs and into something else!

"So the planning was very easy. We did our homework, had a lot of pre-planning meetings, but once that was done it was very seamless."

Did you need a licence or permission from any other government body?

"You don't have to register with anyone but you can sign up with Fáilte Ireland and get a rating with them."

What grant aid or other assistance was available?

"LEADER were a massive help. They gave me financial help of around €23,000, but almost more important was the advice and business help. They've done all of this before so their advice was invaluable."

What support bodies or state agencies were able to help?

"The whole thing started through Teagasc. That was the beginning. Fáilte Ireland and LEADER were also great. LEADER are all about farm diversification and helping small businesses in rural areas."

Was insurance required?

"Insurance is a big issue for Glamping. I know people who are getting started now and they are struggling to get quotes from insurers.

"I was very lucky, we have been with FBD for 40 years with the pig farm, and only for that I don't know would we have gotten an insurer.

"It's a real problem for anyone new getting into the market. If you don't have a history with someone already it could be tough.

"I don't think they [FBD] really wanted to quote me but because of the relationship that we had for the last 40 years we got a policy.

"It's a sizable amount of money and I don't know where the premium is going to go. The premiums are high and even just getting a quote can be a fight.

"It's going to be a major issue in the future. If an insurer was to drop out of the market we'd all be under serious pressure."

How did the new business affect your tax dealings?

"The tax was easy enough. Coming from the background with the pig farm it was all very similar. I am operating as a sole trader at the moment, which is handy."

How much time was needed to get the business off the ground?

"It was a huge commitment of time at the beginning. I did most of the groundworks myself and all the landscaping. I put a huge amount of time into it, more than what I was putting in to the farm."

Did you encounter any unexpected pitfalls or challenges?

"I didn't have too many unexpected problems. But then again I had been planning this for four or five years before I went for it. So I had figured out a lot of the stumbling blocks before I got started."

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