Is there more ways to build an agricultural sector than just milking cows, fattening steers?

Free-Range Turkeys
Free-Range Turkeys
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Last autumn I got a serious shock when I realised my miserable 60ac of winter barley was not only unprofitable, but that the whole exercise would actually leave a loss amounting to thousands of euro.

It's these kinds of scenarios that convince the majority of the farming community that it they are not farming on a big scale that they are 'at nothing'.

But the flip side of this is that large scale farming, whether it's cereals, beef or dairy won't be able to keep rural Ireland alive. Even though there are many dairy men crying out for staff, the reality is that these operations are only providing a fraction of the employment compared to previous decades.

In 1980 there were over 80,000 dairy herds, each of which was keeping at least one family.

Close to 80pc of those herds have gone by the wayside, and the 16,000 that remain rarely provide more than two full-time jobs.

Further downstream, the processing end is equally labour-light. Modern plants such as Glanbia's Belview can process millions of litres of milk with just a handful of employees present.

The more hi-tech divisions of the likes of Kerry spend as much time looking at how to get perfect strawberry flavour out of a test-tube in a lab in Naas as they do thinking about the litre of milk.

As for the full-time beef farmer - they are rapidly becoming an endangered species. There'll be no economic miracles performed on the back of the Irish bullock anytime soon.

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However the last seven days spent filming RTÉ's Big Week on the Farm gave me cause for some optimism about the agri-sector's ability to keep economic life-blood flowing through the arteries of Ireland's most rural regions.

I started in Mayo where ag science graduate Michael Flanagan has pursued many varied careers from managing rendering plants, founding IT banking start-ups, flogging lamb to Italians and French and trying his hand at turbet farming in Achill.

The latter cost him dearly with the company going bust despite many millions of initial investment.

But Michael epitomises the phrase that you can't keep a good man down. Two years ago he and his wife Aisling started milking sheep and marketing the milk as yogurt and cheese. Already they are employing three people in a part of Mayo between Knock and Claremorris where the range of job opportunities are limited to say the least.

Their milkman was able to quit a job five hours away in Waterford to come back to his native county. Their Velvet Cloud brand is set for lift-off, and employment looks set to grow on this 100ac farm.


The next night I was broadcasting from the shores of the Atlantic in northwest Sligo. There we met Charlie Kelly and Kevin O'Kelly who had met in a choir in UCG well over 30 years ago.

The arts student and marine biologist struck up a friendship that has survived the intervening years and disasters such as the brown ring virus that wiped out their thriving clam business in recent times.

But their entrepreneurial spirit ensured that they could turn their attention to oysters, 99pc of whom are exported all over the world.

In the processing sheds used by Wild Atlantic Oysters at Lissadell I met ex-mechanics and young lads involved in the labour intensive sorting, sizing and cleaning of the shellfish.

My next stop was possibly the most powerful example of the impact a small farm diversification project can make. Thomas Hughes inherited 35ac from his dad who passed away two years ago. In the aftermath the Donegal man realised that he really wanted a job that would allow him to spend more time with his own kids rather than spending days and nights on the road as a salesman.

However, as he says himself, the farm had never really been able to provide an income that would keep a family going.

Hughes, who has two children under the age of six, applied and qualified for farm assist but he also started working on ways to make his suckler cows pay their way.

"I decided to try selling beef burgers from some of the animals from the farm at a festival in the local town of Castlefinn," he recalls. "It was a watershed moment. With just a little mobile hob and a 10ft gazebo we took in €1,500 in one day from selling 300 burgers at €5 a go."

Buoyed by this initial foray, Hughes realised that he could go a step further if he got pigmeat on the menu too.

"I realised that nobody was that interested in eating beef before lunch, but everybody would go for a bit of pork if we stuck it in a breakfast bap," he says.

A year on Thomas has bought a new cattle trailer and converted it into a food-grade wagon, teamed up with well-known chef Brian McDermott and developed a business keeping the heaving hordes fuelled at festivals and open-days all over the country under the Lisnamulligan brand.

"This farm has never known the like of the cash-flow that this has been able to create. I'm really looking forward to this season and getting a real buzz off the fact that I'm creating something for the family."

Thursday saw me revisiting the ever-entrepreneurial Eoin Sharkey who has developed a thriving business supplying free-range turkeys, geese and occasionally rabbit to restaurants and the public. Another income from a farm of less than 50ac.

By their nature, small businesses making artisan food tend to be labour intensive. They are also perfect fits with areas where the need for employment is greatest. All are proof that there's more ways to skin a cat, rabbit or whatever you're having yourself.

And there's more ways to build an agricultural sector than just milking cows, fattening steers or ploughing hundreds of acres for corn.

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