Former Clare hurler Padraig Giblin believes there are big opportunities for farmers willing to diversify their holdings
He turned a 14-acre farm on the rocky shores of Lough Derg into a multi-million-euro business. And the first thing to go were his eight "pet cattle".
Padraig Giblin, managing director of Sportsworld Netting in Scariff, Co Clare, is living proof that diversifying farms can halt rural decline.
All he needed was the right idea.
Sitting down with the Farming Independent at the Croke Park Hotel, just yards from where his internationally renowned Gaelic football and hurling nets hang in front of Hill 16, Padraig says farmers have the power to reboot rural Ireland.
"Any man who has 10 acres has a gem, he has an emerald," he says. "There are 142,000 farms in the 26 counties and I just can't understand why farms aren't diversified. There are huge markets out there that are being untouched.
"Farming is a tradition that has been handed down from father to son - he tells you to 'keep the herd going, keep doing what I've been doing for the last 50 years and you'll be alright'. But there is a better way that can sustain the future of entire communities."
Padraig, a former Clare county hurler, worked in the ESB for nearly 19 years, eight of which he spent at the local depot in Scariff, where he worked with his late father, Thomas.
He vividly remembers the day rural decline started to darken the Banner County's door.
"The early 1980s was a great time in the ESB: they had 14,000 staff, a top hurling team, they gave us excellent training and there was a great sense of camaraderie," he recalls.
"But in 1988 they closed a lot of the small buildings, which was very sad. They decided to draw a line through depots in Scariff, Ennistymon and Kilrush and to me it was the first signs of the demise of rural Ireland."
Padraig had a car and continued to work for the state body in Ennis. His father retired. All the while he also hurled for his local club, where a recurring problem was eating into finances.
"One end of the pitch was very, very high so when we hit the sliotar over the bar or drove it wide it went down a steep embankment into a farmer's field," he explains. "Someone was going to get hurt and we couldn't afford to keep losing 10-15 sliotars at each training session."
In 1991, the skilful pole climber offered to help put up a large net to stop the balls.
"It worked excellent, but when the winter storms starting coming I found myself having to go down and climb the poles to stop the nets getting damaged in the prevailing winds," he says.
One evening before a big county final, Padraig went to visit his father, who was recovering from a heart attack.
"I was browned off from fixing the net, it kept going wrong," he says. "I looked up and saw my mother pull the curtains. I thought 'if I only I could draw the nets like that' to be able to retract them to the side'."
Padraig went away full of optimism. He realised he could do things differently.
"I designed a pulley system, like a stage curtain, that could slide back on a cable," he explains. "It was the first of its kind and it started to work."
Although the father of three knew he was onto a winner, he had no money for marketing and still worked for the ESB.
"A factory or an industry could close but sport will never close," he says. "As long as I'm alive a football will be kicked out onto a road, so I knew netting was a sustainable move."
More and more neighbouring parishes and the county boards started to inquire about his revolutionary nets. The first big job was Cusack Park in Ennis in 1989 for a game between Clare and Armagh. Other counties soon came knocking.
"The demand was getting too much. I made a decision to retire from the ESB. I set up the company officially, Sportsworld Netting, and we started to move," says Padraig, who is married to Anne Harrison, director of retail chain Carraig Donn.
Storage for his nets was an issue but when Padraig's father inherited a 14-acre farm with a house, some old sheds and eight cattle, he saw more opportunity to expand.
"I didn't know anything about cattle so we started using the farm in a different way. I developed the sheds - put in concrete so I could store my nets and the vans," he says.
By 2006, Padraig was turning over almost €2m, had employed 15 local staff and went on to install nearly 2,000 units of the retractable nets, including contracts for the Aviva Stadium, state bodies, golf courses and Croke Park.
The Croke Park project was bitter-sweet as his father, a devoted GAA man, had passed away just six months earlier.
Padraig also found lucrative industrial markets for his nets in the forestry sector in Germany and tobacco warehouses in Brazil, Europe and the United States. It didn't stop there.
He diversified his holding into a boat and fishing company which now attracts hundreds of international visitors every year, which in turn brings business to the local shops, bars and restaurants.
He also bought an additional 20 acres near Lough Derg, where he runs a team-building centre for GAA teams and schools groups.
"I see farmers today focused on fattening cattle and getting the best beef prices but I feel they are not getting full value for their hard work," he says.
"I often wonder why they don't dig out ponds to breed fish or get into snails - there are huge markets left untouched.
"If we diversify farms and educate children to be more industrious they will stay, pay taxes here and our country would be wealthier. We need to focus on other strengths of land in every region."
Farmers need to think "outside the box" when it comes to diversification inside the farm gates, says Padraig Giblin.
Padraig, who will speak at a conference on 'Building Rural Community - Lessons from Sport' in Thurles tomorrow, stresses that small holdings have huge potential.
"Some parts of the country would be very scenic, so why not set up activities to bring tourists, like bike trips through the woods, fishing, kayaking, adventure centres?" he says. "Find out if your area is twinned with any town abroad. Then see if the local rugby clubs or GAA clubs would be interested in bringing over a sports club from the twinned town, or invite the mayor - it's about thinking outside the box.
"Farmers could do up old sheds to rent as an artist studio or upgrade an old farm-house for self-catering."
As many towns and villages outside Dublin and the commuter belt continue to struggle with depopulation and sustainable employment opportunities, Padraig is urging the Government to set up a farm enterprise board specifically focused on helping farms diversify their business.
"We need to see someone come in to mentor farm families as they move to expand their enterprise, and structure their overheads, pricing and costs," he says.
Tipperary senior hurling manager Michael Ryan, National Ploughing Championship director Anna May McHugh and Kerry GAA legend Pat Spillane will also speak at tomorrow's conference at Mary Immaculate College.