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Farmer on bouncing back from a devastating a bovine TB outbreak to build up a thriving organic sheep farming business

Andrew McShea has bounced in Donegal

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Keeping it local: Andrew McShea with butcher John Dolan from McGovern Meats who processes the meat for the Tully House Organic Farm range of sheep meat products

Keeping it local: Andrew McShea with butcher John Dolan from McGovern Meats who processes the meat for the Tully House Organic Farm range of sheep meat products

Keeping it local: Andrew McShea with butcher John Dolan from McGovern Meats who processes the meat for the Tully House Organic Farm range of sheep meat products

Building resilience into any farm system is critical. It takes time but is something that should be top of the agenda for all farmers facing into a somewhat uncertain future.

Andrew McShea, who farms in Tully, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, is nothing if not resilient.

He converted his land to organic production with the Irish Organic Association in 2015 and was farming pure-bred Parthenaise cattle before disaster struck in the autumn of 2016 when the herd was struck down with TB.

"It was a very difficult period," he recalls. "My father had recently passed away, and then the herd came down with TB and we incurred devastating losses.

"Having changed to organic farming there were new challenges which I had already embraced.

"However when TB struck it prompted me to adopt a different farm system and I decided to switch the focus to sheep production."

Having produced top-quality cattle for many years, Andrew also felt that the margins were no longer viable.

"You spend a long time building up a pure-bred herd and farm outputs are excellent quality, but it is not reflected in the prices received so I felt that a different approach was required," he says.

"The first step was to convert the farm to organic. Obviously I had not factored in the TB outbreak and the subsequent switch to sheep. However, it is all part of the risks that a farmer takes, and being able to adapt and move on is important."

Once the decision to switch to sheep was made, Andrew began to build up his breeding stock, and he is preparing to lamb 60 ewes in the coming weeks.

The sheep are Texel and Kerry Hill crosses. In October 2019 Andrew took the farm business to the next level and began processing the meat to sell under the Tully House Organic Farm brand.

"This is an essential part of the business plan and the motivation for conversion to organic farming," he says. "I saw that by selling direct to the consumer you can really add value to what you are producing on farm and there is a demand for good-quality organic meat products.

"As farmers we need to ensure that we are paid a decent price for what we produce and this development has given us an opportunity to do that."

Sustainability

Given the debate about the environmental impact of meat production, it is important that farmers step up and play their part in developing sustainable food supply chains.

"There are many complex issues associated with food production and consumption, and our role as custodians of the land is to ensure that we do our best in terms of producing quality food while enhancing the environment," says Andrew.

"For us we produce a truly sustainable local meat product. It is farmed organically to the highest production standards, then the lamb is transported four miles to the local abattoir run by Sean Rooney.

"It is then processed by local butcher John Dolan at McGovern Meats in Belleek, which is four miles in the other direction.

"We sell the meat as freezer-ready to local customers. This is real local food production, a top-quality local organic meat product that people want, and they are willing to pay a reasonable price to get it."

In order to further enhance the sustainability of the lamb product Tully House Organic Farm have tried to source more sustainable packaging.

"We have biodegradable labels; however the glue does not biodegrade so that needs to be amended," says Andrew.

"Trying to source trays for the meat has been really difficult as they do not retain the integrity of the meat product - this is particularly challenging as a small producer as the volumes we require are tiny compared to big processors.

"It is a really important aspect of our business model so we will continue the search to find the most sustainable packaging as it is link missing to complete the circle."

In addition to farming Andrew works part time with the North Atlantic Seaweed company selling liquid seaweed fertiliser that is generally used as a bio-stimulant for plants.

"Farming is full of uncertainties and Brexit has done much to foster that," he says.

"The only thing that we are sure of is that Brexit is happening and the next 12 months will be important for all farmers in terms of prices and production standards.

"For us taking more control over what we produce has been an important step in future-proofing the farm."

Indo Farming