Catherine O’Grady Powers felt she was spending a fortune on her 5,500ac family farm when she returned from the USA to take it over, so she moved into agri-tourism.
Catherine O’Grady Powers grew up on one of the country’s largest sheep farms but left it all behind for the city lights.
After flying high in the USA, she decided to move back to the family farm in Glen Keen, Louisburgh, Co Mayo with her husband Jim.
They are now showcasing all their history-steeped working farm has to offer as they welcome visitors from across the globe.
“Life growing up on the farm was always special, but I didn’t realise just how special until I moved away,” says Catherine, who also lived in the UK before moving home to Ireland in 2000.
“I’d been working in Washington DC and had a lovely job and life with my husband Jim, who had been working as a pilot.
“My dad and uncles had been farming here but they were looking to step back from it. I’d always felt a great sense of protection over our family farm and I wanted to see it continue to thrive.
“So we made the decision that we would move to Ireland and that Jim would travel between here and the USA for work.”
The couple had a “transatlantic marriage” for a while with their work commitments.
“I’d always missed home, and the place I grew up in had so much to offer,” she says.
The vast estate of Glen Keen, which spans over 5,500ac and is home to 650 sheep, required a lot of work when Catherine took it over.
“There were hundreds of acres of lowland which needed to be fenced and there was a lot of other work to be done so it required a substantial investment,” she says.
In 2004, the couple sat back and evaluated just how much money and time they’d put into the farm and decided they needed to find another avenue of viability.
“We looked at the financial investment that we’d made and the fact that we hadn’t yet seen a return from it,” says Catherine.
“We thought of ways to diversify the farm, which got me thinking back of my childhood. People would regularly stop and watch as we herded the sheep and we’d often see tourists visiting the area.
“The area is steeped in history and we knew that this place was special.”
Glen Keen Farm is immersed in Irish history, with Catherine’s family having been tenant farmers of the land from the 1600s.
The site is home to two ring forts and still holds the remains of a cluster of farm cabins from the 1800s, as well as ancient burial grounds.
So the couple decided to branch into the agri-tourism sector and utilise their working sheep farm in a different way.
“There was a lack of employment in the area and we felt that a tourism business would benefit more people than just us,” says Catherine.
“There’s so many talented craftspeople, musicians and dancers around here but no outlet for them.”
The diversification process was long, and required further investment and a lot of planning, but Catherine gained further confidence in her idea when she was approved for LEADER funding through the South West Development Company.
“We told the Development Company about our idea of showcasing our working farm in various different ways,” she says.
“We told them we wanted to provide traditional sheepdog herding experiences, turf-cutting experiences, guided farm tours, craft workshops and much more.
“We wanted to build a craft shop to sell local, hand-made products too.
“They were very supportive, as was Mayo County Council.”
Over the next few years, the couple focused on raising capital and securing planning permission for a new agri-tourism building on the farm.
In 2012, Catherine started marketing the farm business at trade fairs.
“I knew if we wanted to attract an international customer-base we’d need to start marketing our business before we even had it fully developed,” she says.
“So we got in touch with Fáilte Ireland and our LEO to get the ball rolling.”
In 2014, after a long road of building, training and marketing, Catherine and Jim opened their farm to the public for the first time, having secured a tour bus contract with CIE.
The couple began offering a range of traditional Irish experiences to their visitors.
“Our number one experience has always been the sheepdog herding,” says Catherine. “This is where visitors get to learn all about the Border Collie breed, such as their history, diet and training on whistle commands. Then they get to see the dogs in action, responding to their commands.
“Jim and I do the sheepdog demonstrations as well as two local farmers, Michael Hastings and George Hughes, who then tell the visitors about their farm systems.
“It’s great for international visitors who don’t come from farming backgrounds.”
Local sheep farmer and wool crafter June Bourke provides a traditional wool-spinning demonstration, showing visitors how to take raw wool and turn it into yarn before spinning it to create a product.
Catherine and Jim also got special permission from the National Parks and Wildlife Service to provide a turf-cutting experience.
“This is a special area of conservation where turf cutting is no longer permitted,” Catherine says.
“Some of the most pristine and intact peatland in the West lies here, so we applied for special permission to demonstrate the traditional method of turf cutting in conjunction with our guided tour of the historical sites on the land, and it was granted.”
Other experiences offered on Glen Keen Farm include classes on how to make traditional Irish coffees, Irish song and dance with local musicians Joe Ford and Brendan Keegan, and scone making classes.
The couple’s 650 mountain ewes don’t play a big role.
“The sheep live on the mountains most of the time and we only bring them down five times a year for certain events such as breeding and scanning,” says Catherine.
“We’ve always kept the Scotch breed, which are horned, black-faced sheep. They’re bred specifically to thrive on mountain settings and high land.
“The heather and coarse vegetation on the mountains acts as a natural antiseptic for their feet, and we often find that when we bring them down to low land, the end up getting problems such as foot-rot.
“We started crossing them with a Texel ram a few years ago, which results in beautiful Hill-Tex lambs. They’re heavier than the black-faced lambs and more profitable too.”
Keeping tabs on the entire flock, which has access to 10,000ac of commonage, can be difficult so Catherine has recently invested in a new sheep-tracking software.
“It’s a location tracker which works somewhat like a micro-chip,” she says. “The number corresponds with the sheep’s ear tag and can be scanned.
“It works through a downloadable app which allows you to see your sheep’s location at any time.
“We’re very interested in location tracking for sheep and hope to try out other new apps and software to find the best fit for us.
“There’s a lot of work being done in universities on location tracking for farm animals and it’s something we would love to offer our farm as a test bed for.”
When Covid disrupted the tourism sector, Catherine and Jim tried a new exporting venture where they send traditional Irish produce to China and other parts of Asia.
“We got help from Enterprise Ireland, GMIT New Frontiers Programme and Mayo Local Enterprise Office. We’re starting with Irish whiskey,” says Catherine.
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
We have made a substantial investment in the farm and business. It’s been gradual but we have put a lot of time and money into it.
Was there any grant aid available?
Yes, we got a grant from LEADER for constructing our visitor building.
This was invaluable — we wouldn’t have been able to build it without the grant.
How long did it take to get the business off the ground?
Winning tour contracts and building up your name as an international trade provider takes a minimum of three years.
Gaining tour operators’ confidence takes time so it didn’t happen overnight for us.
Did you find any state bodies or agencies helpful?
LEADER was amazing for financial assistance and Mayo LEO was fantastic for all things advice.
Mayo LEO provided us with training in social media marketing as well as giving us excellent mentorship.
I couldn’t recommend them enough.
We also got a micro-exporter’s grant for attending international trade shows.
Failté Ireland has also been a great help giving us workshops and support, as has Tourism Ireland Trade Missions Abroad.
Did you require planning permission?
Yes. Mayo County Council was a fantastic help in this regard. We availed of their free planning clinics, which we found invaluable.
We saved so much money by using them and gained great information.
There’s an abundance of free information out there if you look for it.