In the late 1970s, with milk prices falling, the Hennigans opened up their farmhouse in the foothills of Benbulben as a B&B, then turned old sheds into self-catering units. 44 years on, the business is still going strong, and they have added a 10,000-hen free-range egg operation as well as 400 sheep and Christmas turkeys
Over the last 44 years, the Hennigan family have diversified their Sligo farm in more ways than one: Benbulben Farm is home to a large flock of sheep and up to 10,000 laying hens, while the farmhouse is run as a B&B.
“In my father Jimmy’s time it was a mixed farm like most,” says Michael, who now runs the farm with his brother-in-law Richard.
“He had a few pigs and he was milking some cows and had a bit of tillage too — mostly potatoes and oats. He was what you’d call self-sufficient; back then everyone was.
“He got out of milking in the ’70s because the price of milk was so poor and started fattening heifers. The farm then became a demonstration farm for Teagasc.”
With a family of seven to rear, Jimmy and his wife Ann opened their home as a B&B in the late ’70s to supplement the farm income.
“Mum was encouraged by a friend who was already in the B&B business and knew there was a big demand for farmhouse accommodation and hill walking,” says Michael.
“The farm and house are in a very scenic part of Sligo, at the base of Benbulben and there’s a choice of blue-flag beaches within a few miles of us in all directions. Mum knew that was going to be a help in attracting visitors.”
The Hennigans had always been shareholders of Benbulben Mountain with their farm “in its foothills,” and hoped to attract hill walkers.
“Although it looks steep, it’s not difficult to climb and the top is flat, so Mum and Dad knew it would be a nice attraction,” says Michael.
“It has proven to be popular — Mum’s guest books are filled with accounts of the good times people have had up there.”
Jimmy also put in walkways through the farm, planted a woodland habitat and created a pond.
Ann opened the B&B in 1978 and it has been thriving ever since.
Jimmy says: “Back then it was all word of mouth because there was no internet or booking engines.
“Ann’s home cooking was one of the reasons the customer base started to grow — she cooked breakfast and dinner every day for her guests and they loved it.
“Marita, our daughter who now runs the B&B with her husband Ian, still uses her mother’s brown bread and scone recipe today — if it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
With the B&B going so well, the Hennigans decided to branch into the self-catering industry and renovated some derelict buildings on the farm.
“We did practically all the work ourselves converting the old sheds and got in a couple of workers to help,” says Jimmy. “One man, Sean Gallagher came to help us that time, which was 40 years ago now, and still with us today. He’s been my right-hand man on the farm ever since”.
The Hennigans always kept a few laying hens and Ann used the eggs for cooking and baking. This went down well with visitors, Jimmy says, especially those who didn’t come from farming backgrounds as they enjoyed getting to see where the ingredients for their food came from.
Having been regularly complimented on their farm-fresh eggs, the couple decided to diversify further and get into free-range egg production.
“The B&B had been going well but Mum and Dad wanted to get the farm to a point where it was generating more income, so in the late ’80s they bought 500 laying hens,” says Michael.
“They converted one of the existing farm sheds into a housing facility for them and fenced around the house so that the hens could be free-range.
“Instead of dry-bedding the hens with sawdust like most, Dad put in slats in the shed.”
The Hennigans also built a registered egg packing and grading facility on the farm.
“The grader machine which they imported from France grades the eggs by weight. Between it and the housing facility, it was a huge investment at the time,” says Michael.
Jimmy and Ann didn’t know whether there would be a market for their eggs when they started out, but over 30 years later the business is still going strong.
“We had to make our own market,” says Jimmy. “Our first port of call was the shops and then the second was the restaurants, and thankfully they were very supportive from day one and took us on.
“After that, we branched into the wholesale trade and now we’re supplying supermarkets and shops across the West of Ireland.
“We have a great base of local customers too and have had for the last 30 years. We’re very fortunate.”
Michael, who took over in 2002 after completing a degree in agriculture, now keeps up to 10,000 laying hens, having bought an adjoining farm and built a new free-range egg facility.
“I always had a great interest in the poultry side of things, I enjoy it,” he says.
“However, one of the biggest clouds on the horizon for the poultry industry is Avian flu. It is monitored by the Department and they order lockdowns when it is very bad.”
Marita and Ian, with Michael and Richard’s help, have also been rearing Christmas turkeys on the farm for the last number of years.
“We used to process free-range turkeys and chickens but now we just do Christmas turkeys — we keep 300-400 every year.
“We get them every year in September when they are five weeks old. Most people want a 14-16lb turkey.
“We feed them a stable diet of grains and wheat and they’re out on grass.”
The Hennigans used to slaughter on the farm but now they send the turkeys to a local slaughterhouse instead.
“When we get them back we put them straight into the cold room on the farm,” says Michael. “Then they’re sold straight from here — we’re fully registered with the HSE.”
The farm is also home to flock of 400 sheep, which Michael and Richard manage.
“We used to keep horned ewes but we didn’t find them to be that profitable, so we made the change,” says Michael.
“Now we mainly keep cross-bred ewes like Suffolk, Belclare and Texels, and Dad still helps out with them.
“This has always been a family enterprise, with everyone lending a helping hand when needed.”
Was there financing from the bank readily available?
Yes, and we always found the banks very accommodating.
Was there grant aid available?
Yes, we got LEADER grant aid for the tourism side of the business and we got a grant from the Local Enterprise Office for the small egg packaging unit on the farm.
Did you need to register with any government bodies?
You can’t keep poultry or pack eggs with out being registered with the Department, and we’re registered with Bord Bia.
If you could go back in time is there anything you would do differently?
There’s so much paperwork involved in business that you need to have a good head for finances. Doing a course in business would have been a great help.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Covid was a challenge for the B&B because we had to close for a while.
Now it’s the price of energy, which affects the cost of production for the eggs. Getting our sale price to cover our production costs is difficult. I went to to an energy conference and we’re looking at getting a bio-digester or solar panels to combat the price of energy.
What are your biggest input costs in the business?
For the egg business it’s feed, energy and the price of diesel. The price of everything has gone through the roof, it’s hard to know where it’s going to end. For the B&B, again it’s energy costs.