Farm Ireland

Monday 23 July 2018

How this young farmer has developed a premium food brand

'It’s a big problem for young people, to come home to a family farm and put added-on value on what you have on the existing farm and eke out your own income and life from it'

Conor Kane

Before too long, the family team behind Kilkenny Rosé Veal hope their product will be the go-to choice for discerning diners when it comes to choosing veal.

The brand name that immediately comes to mind and is recognised on menus nationwide and, even, internationally.

They’re well on the way to getting there. In its short history, Kilkenny Rosé Veal has already found itself sitting on the menu of some top restaurants - including the award-winning Campagne in Kilkenny city - and on the meat trays of numerous high-quality butchers.

The brainchild of young Windgap farmer Jack Hahessy Madigan, with the help of his father Bill and uncle Paul, this premium food is successfully battling perceptions of Irish veal, and veal in general.

During his time at Mountbellew Agricultural College, Jack was looking around for something he could concentrate his efforts on upon graduating, “something that wouldn’t need a landbank,” given the family’s farm was already largely given over to growing miscanthus.

“A small amount of veal was being brought back into Ireland to be sold in Italian restaurants and Michelin-starred restaurants. Having gone from being beef finishers, we were good on feeding and we had plenty of experience and the equipment to feed cattle.

“It’s a big problem for young people in agriculture, to come home to a family farm and put added-on value on what you have on the existing farm and eke out your own income and life from it. The veal fitted the bill.”

In early 2015 - over a year before Jack’s graduation in 2016 - they started buying about 10 calves a month for veal purposes. “We had no real plan at the end to sell them, only that we would buy 10 a month and rear them and see how we would get along.”

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By the end of the first rearing cycle, they were happy with how the calves turned out. “When we went looking, we saw there was no-one really buying veal so we said ‘to hell with it,’ we would have to try and sell it ourselves.”

They bought the young Holstein Friesian calves from Hennessy’s in Urlingford, who advised them to contact Tynan’s about killing and processing the finished animals, and the early feedback from restaurants and butchers regarding the finished product was positive.

“In Campagne, Gareth [Byrne] bought a piece of veal from us and liked it so much, he came back and bought a whole side. It kind of grew from there.”

In Windgap, Jack’s father Bill grows miscanthus on the 160-acre farm and uncle Paul has a beef enterprise but they all help out with whatever needs to be done, depending on the demands of such a varied operation. His mother, Catherine, is a teacher and she and his two younger sisters tend to leave them to it, although girlfriend Annette “is good to help,” says a diplomatic Jack.

They now supply on a wholesale basis, through Larousse Foods, which can be more convenient for buyers who would be purchasing other meats from the same people.

One of the challenges encountered by Jack and the family is trying to predict how many calves they will be able to sell on at the end of a given period. It’s not really a seasonal meat, so there are no “on” and “off” periods as such.

“Your customers don’t want it to be seasonal. If a chef is putting it on the menu, he wants to know it’s going to be there. It’s a problem because nearly all the bull calves are born in the first few months of the year, that means they’re nearly all ready around Christmas time. So there’s no problem for us at this time of year but later in the year, the calves aren’t as good.”

Another issue with veal is it’s perception as a “cruel” food. A misperception, Jack says.

“The reality is that the calf is about eight and a half months’ old so it’s older than lamb or chicken. They’re young bulls, if you don’t buy Kilkenny Rosé Veal that’s a calf that’s going for export. It makes a lot more sense for the consumer to just buy Kilkenny Rosé Veal, because it’s an Irish calf that stayed in Ireland and was produced on the family farm. It’s a very short supply chain compared to calves going to export, sold to Holland and then coming back here as veal.”

A big advantage to the veal trade is its scaleability, according to the young farmer.

“Even in dairy production, you’re restricted by grass. With the veal, there’s nothing really to stop you only your ability to sell the stuff. It’s really trying to grow it into an agri-business rather than a farm and promote the name Kilkenny Rosé Veal. I don’t see why we couldn’t build it to be like a Clonakilty Black Pudding and that it would be the name people look for when they look for veal.”

At the moment they have about 140 animals to hand. Going into retail using their in-development website along with the export market are next on the to-do list and Jack hopes to grow to a point where they are producing and selling an average of one veal bull a day, 365 days a year.

“That’s the aim. We’re not trying to work backwards from a price, we’re trying to put everything we can into doing the best for each calf. We’re definitely trying to do it right.”

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