Agri entrepreneurs are turning to peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding as an alternative to the banks
Farmers who set up rural businesses to sustain their income are turning to crowdfunding sites to finance their ventures, with some businesses raising tens of thousands in a matter of minutes and hours.
Peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding sites are taking off among farming and agri-food business start-ups in Ireland, a conference on farm diversification has heard.
One rural business which saw the benefits of peer-to-peer lending first-hand was Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella in Cork which raised a staggering €50,000 in just four minutes at an interest rate of 8.5pc.
Orla Casey from Momentum Consulting told the conference at GMIT that she was seeing more and more Irish rural start-ups turn to such sites. She said there was often a lack of awareness and a fear factor among farmers when it came to identifying where the funding opportunities were.
"It's not all about grants. Microfinance and crowdfunding are becoming so, so popular and so beneficial. I am seeing it more and more often and in the UK, 10pc of all business is using two formats, crowdfunding and pee-to-peer lending.
"In Ireland it is particularly popular with farming, agri food and tourism businesses. It is a little more expensive but the money is available much quicker," she said.
Farming water buffalo in Cork
The water buffalo is an animal that most of us would expect to spot in the swamps and muddy waters of Asia and India - rather than the green fields of west Cork. Yet should you be strolling around the Gaeltacht in west Cork, you might well come across the herd of buffalo which Johnny Lynch has on his farm.
There are more than 200 water buffalo on Lynch's 150-acre farm in Cill na Martra - which is near the town of Macroom.
Lynch imported 31 water buffalo from Italy in 2009. He learnt how to milk buffalo when he visited a buffalo farm in Wales that year - and is now the first and only producer of buffalo milk in Ireland.
In April 2015, Lynch set up Macroom Buffalo Cheese Products - a company which produces buffalo mozzarella cheese. It was this mozzarella that won the company a gold award at the World Cheese Awards in San Sebastian, Spain last December.
Lynch grew up on the family farm - where he continues to work.
"This is the fifth generation at least here on the Lynch farm," he says.
It was originally Friesian cattle that were milked on the farm.
Decision partly financial, partly practical
Lynch's decision to introduce water buffalo to the farm a few years ago was partly financial, partly practical.
"I've been farming all my life," says Lynch. "A few years ago, I could see that milk quotas were going down. It wasn't making financial sense to make cow's milk. I knew that for the next generation coming up, there was no way you could make a living out of cow dairy farming because of the poor prices farmers were getting for their milk.
"Buffalo also have a much longer life expectancy than cattle. It's not unusual for a buffalo to live 25 years. Cows would have seven or eight years in them and that would be good. After seven or eight years, Friesians usually give trouble. They get old and start having foot problems and so on."
Lynch also felt it would be easier to incorporate buffalo into his farm than would be the case with smaller animals.
"If I was to start milking sheep or goats, I'd have had to change the farm, and put in a smaller milking parlour - and chicken wire," says Lynch.
"With the water buffalo, all I needed to do was to strengthen the milking parlour I already had and put an electric fence around everything I needed to keep on the farm - such as trees and so on. This is because buffalo will scratch at the bark of trees until the trees fall down. Water buffalo are very strong."
Introducing water buffalo onto his farm wasn't without its challenges, however.
"I had to get used to the buffalo and their health issues," says Lynch. "Water buffalo don't have any milk for six months of the year - but Friesians are only without milk for two months of the year. So I had to change my whole way of thinking to keep the milk supply all through the year."
The water buffalo take well to the Irish climate, according to Lynch.
"Water buffalo are in hot countries all over the world - and yet they hate the heat," says Lynch. "If the temperature goes over 18 to 20 degrees, the buffalo's milk drops. We lost two calves to heat stroke here last June."
As well as buffalo mozzarella cheese, ricotta, halloumi and Greek-style cheese are made from the buffalo milk produced on Lynch's farm.
"We turn all the milk into cheese on the farm," says Lynch.
Lynch enlisted the help of cheese maker, Sean Ferry, when setting up his company. Ferry, who has about 30 years' experience making cheese, is head cheese maker with the company.
Ferry - along with another cheese maker, Bill Hogan - is well-known for being behind the 'Desmond' and 'Gabriel' cheeses, two well-known gourmet cheeses that were produced a few years ago.
"I decided to make buffalo cheese because cheese was being made here in Ireland with nearly every milk - from sheep's milk to goat's milk and so on," says Lynch.
"I'd never heard of buffalo cheese before we started to make it here. Sheep and goats milk is very healthy. Buffalo milk is too. Buffalo milk is often good for people who are allergic to cow's milk.
"There are a lot of people who can't have cheese made from cow's milk - but they can have cheese made from buffalo milk. People with lupus disease have come to our yard and asked for buffalo milk."
Lynch also sells some buffalo meat under the Macroom Buffalo meat brand.
"There are more male animals coming on stream so more of our buffalo meat will be coming on the market," he says.
Although Lynch's company is less than two years old, its buffalo cheese is already for sale in 370 stores around the country. It is stocked in SuperValu, Aldi and Tesco stores nationwide - and in Dunnes Stores' Cork outlets. The cheese is also for sale in Spar and Centra and in a number of independent stores. Food distributor Pallas Foods also supplies the cheese to a number of restaurants around Ireland.
"There's a huge demand for buffalo cheese in Ireland," says Lynch. "There's 25pc growth forecast for buffalo mozzarella cheese year-on-year here for the next three to four years. We didn't expect that kind of growth."
The consistent demand for cheese in Ireland throughout the year is one of the things that is driving this growth, according to Lynch.
"In Italy, they produce way more cheese in summer than in winter as it's considered more of a summer meal," says Lynch. "But in Ireland, cheese is popular all year long - so there's not much of a difference in the production of cheese throughout the year."
Although Lynch may export some of his cheese in the coming years, for the moment his focus is the Irish market.
"We're looking at the British market carefully but we're not sure about exporting there now - because of Brexit," says Lynch. "We're also looking at other parts of Europe. For the next couple of years however, we may not have enough milk or cheese to export - at the moment, we only have enough buffalo milk for the Irish market."
Lynch has big expansion plans that could well see his company in a position to export soon.
"We've gone for planning to make our cheese plant twice the size it is," says Lynch. "We hope to start that in this month or March. We plan to expand the milking herd - and to stick to buffalo."
Lynch's company employs 10 full-time workers - including himself.
He describes the lack of time as his biggest challenge as a farmer.
"I find time management to be my biggest challenge," says Lynch. "You rarely have time away from the farm."
He clearly enjoys his work however - as well as the animals he works with.
"The water buffalo are more like a dog than a cow," says Lynch.
"They give you a grunt in the morning as you take them into the fields - as if they're saying hello."