Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

Farmers who left safety net of EU subsidies to make fortune

Darragh McCullough looks at four entrepreneurs who have achieved major success abroad

Tom Clinton. Pic Tom Burke
Tom Clinton. Pic Tom Burke
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Irish farmers have proved that they don't need subsidies from the EU to be massively successful in their chosen profession. Some have chosen to leave the payment safety net behind and seek their fortunes, all over the world.

Tom Clinton (New Zealand)

Rodney Elliott
Rodney Elliott

The Meath farmer has always been ambitious, having built up a sizeable dairy operation on the home farm at Carlanstown just outside Kells.

Combining an agricultural contracting business with long hours in various positions at the top of the IFA, the former president said he got "a rub of the tiger" when part of his land was sold for development at the start of the economic boom. He took this money at the start of the Noughties to New Zealand, where land could be bought for a fraction of the price it was making here.

Along with fellow Meath farmer John Sheridan, Mr Clinton invested in the first of his dairy farms in the Southland region of New Zealand's South Island. Some 15 years on, Mr Clinton's son Peter manages more than 2,500 cows on five separate farms in the area. Rocketing land prices mean that the family's 2,000-plus acres are now worth a cool €25m.


Francis Grogan
Francis Grogan

Rodney Elliott (USA)

Ten short years ago Rodney Elliott was typical of many dairy farmers in Co Fermanagh. He was milking 150 cows on 200 acres, but was frustrated with the lack of access to extra land to grow his enterprise further.

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Himself and his wife, Dorothy, got on a plane to one of the least densely populated areas of the US - South Dakota - where land could be bought for a quarter the price, and the sky was the limit in terms of the cows he could milk.

Today, their 4,500 milking cows produce more milk per day than Rodney produced during his entire first year milking 20 cows in the 1980s.

"I was dreaming of this when I was sitting on my stool milking cows back then," said the 51-year-old.

But he said the move took courage.

"Everybody back home said that we must be going broke or the marriage was on the rocks," he recalled of the time when they made the decision to move.

But two record milk price years in 2013 and 2014 cleared millions of dollars for the brave couple.

Their huge 10.5-acre cow shed and facilities outside Lake Norden are worth north of €20m, and the family's land holding grows annually, with well over 1,000 acres now owned.

"I don't own anything because its all in a family trust," said the ebullient Mr Elliott. He already has plans to develop another 850 cow herd, but instead of a 24 milking parlour manned by South Americans and Mexicans, he wants to install robots to milk the cows.


Francis Grogan (Zambia)

In 1991, UCD Agricultural Science graduate Francis Grogan saw an ad in the newspaper from a butcher in Zambia advertising a job. The Limerick native was looking for adventure and packed his bags.

Mr Grogan ended up buying out that butchering business, which formed the cornerstone for Zambeef, one of the largest businesses listed on the Zambian stock exchange. Despite annual sales of more than €200m, the company's roots are still firmly in agriculture, with over 40,000 acres farmed. It also slaughters 58,000 cattle annually, 53,000 pigs, and 6 million chickens, along with processing 10 million litres of milk. Zambeef runs 122 retail outlets throughout Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana, and is listed on both the Lusaka and London stock exchanges. The 55-year-old CEO earned more than €2m in 2015.


Eamon Cleary (New Zealand and Malta)

When Eamon Cleary died at the young age of 52, he had already amassed a fortune estimated at over €1bn. Today his family are estimated to be still worth over €700m.

Mr Cleary left school at 11 and spent the first half of his career trading in agri and building supplies in the Border areas surrounding Inniskeen in Monaghan. For most of the 1980s cattle growth promoters were legal, and the canny trader was reputed to have been one of the first in Ireland to cash in on that market.

His mounting gains saw him secure a St Martha's Convent farm of 250 acres on the outskirts of Navan, with most of the cost of the farm reputed to have been covered by the sale of the milk quota and silage. The farm subsequently was sold for development.

However, it was his move to New Zealand in the 1990s that proved to be the real break, with Mr Cleary getting into dairy farming just as the industry really started to take off.

He became Southland's biggest dairy farmer and a major developer in the nearby tourist centre of Queenstown. At one stage he owned the 54,000-acre Coronet Peak Station, before selling it to the former husband of singer Shania Twain.

From there he spread his investments into telecoms and property in Argentina, Australia, Eastern Europe and North America.

He passed away at his horse stud, Clear Sky, in Kentucky in the United States in 2012.

Irish Independent