Kilkenny farmer carving out a new business in organic chicken rearing
SEAN Ring farms just outside of Castlecomer in Co Kilkenny, where for the past five years he has been producing free-range chickens.
He converted to organic farming in February of this year and while it is still early days, he has no regrets.
With a background in marketing and farming, he feels now is the time to make the move to organics.
“In the bigger scheme of chicken production, I am a small producer so I need to ensure high returns. I have only been in this business for five years but I see the potential and know that I can sell 1,000 organic table birds a week.
“Organic chickens have to be free range, and Angela Clarke, the certification manager in IOFGA, outlined what additional steps I had to do to convert to organic. Based on that and my market research, I decided to go for it. The confidence is there in the market, consumers want organic chicken and are willing to pay a decent price which makes my business sustainable,” said Sean.
He currently supplies a variety of markets, including restaurants such as Chapter One, Ashford Castle, artisan butchers such as Ennis Butchers, Grogan and Brown, and speciality retailers such as Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Avoca and Pettitt’s SuperValu stores to name a few.
Many of the current outlets have expressed an interest in organic chickens and this has prompted his conversion to organic.
“I will be honest, initially I was a bit sceptical but now that I am a few months into it, I am beginning to see the results.
“The chickens’ health has improved, they are livelier, not bloated and the mortality rate (which was already low) has dropped.
“We had a speciality poultry vet visiting recently and he was very impressed with the health of the chickens.”
Sean uses a distributor based in Carlow to deliver the finished product, and they currently cover 90pc of the country. He also works with Sadie’s Kitchen who make a bone broth using the necks and carcase from his chickens. “The main demand is for table birds usually for a Sunday roast dinner,” he said.
“Depending on size, they retail anywhere from €13-€18. It is not an impulse buy.
“My market is based on repeat customers, people who buy Ring Chickens value what we are producing. In terms of price, I am well aware that you can get chickens for less than €5, but I am offering a far superior quality meat. My customers use the full chicken and will use the carcase to make a chicken stock or soup, so there is no waste,” said Sean.
Almost 90pc of his chickens are sold as table birds, with the other 10pc sold as breasts, legs, and livers.
“The birds that I am producing are not common breeds here. I have Hubbards and Black Silkie which have black skin and bones.
“Chicken is a tough market to be in — the Irish market is flooded with imports, particularly in the service industry, so you need to differentiate yourself by producing excellent quality meat that customers want.
“Now that I have converted to organic, my feed costs will rise by roughly €70,000 a year. I am now paying over €500/t for feed, as a free-range producer I was paying approximately €300/t.
“Based on that, some of the costs will be absorbed by the business but I will be forced to increase prices slightly.
“That said, I think organic is a good fit for this business and farm.
“I do a lot of tastings at the retail outlets and customers care about the welfare of the birds, what feed it gets and generally how they are reared.
“There is minimal waste with my chickens, so people are getting value for money which is important on every level,” added Sean.
Grace Maher is development officer with the IOFGA, grace.maher@ iofga.org
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