It has been a busy few weeks for Donegal farmer Andrew McShea. Not only has he taken up the role as a southern Ireland distributor for the fledgling agriculture fertiliser North Atlantic Seaweed, but more importantly, he has just sold his first batch of Tully House Organic Lamb into the Irish market.
Business is gearing up for the 43-year-old, who has come through a tough few years, having lost his father Teddy in October 2016 and then his entire herd of pure-bred Parthenaise to TB a few months later.
Having been unable to replace his precious suckler cows, Andrew then decided to concentrate solely on sheep and increase his numbers.
"I had never before gone down to TB, so I was devastated to lose the entire herd," he said. "I only had 12 at the time, but had brought some in from France at great expense and had just started to sell some bulls. One cow got Miliary tuberculosis (TB) and we believe the others contracted it through the drinkers."
Andrew grew up on a dairy farm and had only been in sucklers a few years when his livelihood was hit hard, but he had to keep going and, in those same few months, started the process of switching to organic farming after advice from a private planner.
"I had to do something different, so I think this diversification was the way to go," he said. Andrew farms 36 acres of lowland, so started out with some horned ewes and then built up the flock with Kerry Hill, Suffolk and Texel.
He now keeps a breeding flock of 70 ewes which, this year, yielded 1.6 lambs per head.
Up to this year, Andrew would have sold off his lambs through the co-op at Donegal, but in recent weeks has, for the first time, sent them to Sean Rooney in Ballyshannon to be killed and, from there, to McGoverns Meats in Fermanagh for processing and packaging. This way, Andrew has full control and can ensure his produce is sold directly to the consumer while still making a profit.
"If I can sell a lamb for approximately €210 and make a profit after my expenses, I will be happy." Andrew is a member of the IFA Organic Project Team and has received much support from its chairman Nigel Renehan.
"Andrew has been a great help and, just last week, organised the very first 'Organic Producers Day' at Marley Park."
Hosted by 26 organic producers from all over Ireland, its aim was to create awareness of the food chain from producer to the end consumer and to showcase Ireland's sustainable organic sector.
"It was my first time to bring my own organic lamb and I came home with only a small tray of meat from the four killed, which was a great result." He met quite a number of consumers at Marley Park and was keen to hear their opinions.
"I was the only farmer there with lamb and consumers told me they are all happy to pay extra for organic meat. They wanted to know where they could get it more often."
Although Andrew is based in the north-west, he is now keen to set up meetings with hotels and restaurants in Dublin with a view to supplying organic lamb on a regular basis.
Andrew usually lambs indoors in March and it is a tight time-frame of four weeks.
"This year I am thinking of bringing the ewes in at Christmas and put them back out to lamb on grass in March."
In addition to his new organic lamb business, Andrew is also eager to spread the word about North Atlantic Seaweed, which was also launched at Marley Park.
The brainchild of Gerry Berry, CytoATP is a biologically-enhanced biostimulant that acts as an organic fertiliser for a wide variety of farming practices, including tillage and vegetables.
"The business is based across the border, but the seaweed is actually sourced in Donegal and we hope now to roll it out across Ireland," said Andrew.
Like so many farmers throughout Ireland, Andrew has a few other projects in the pipeline and, in time, hopes to get into organic tillage.
He also became a father to eight-month-old Lorcan earlier this year, and his job as an agricultural mechanic keeps him busy at home in the interim.
A former manager of Ballyshannon Mart, Andrew is now heavily involved in fund-raising for Cancer Care West through his role as chairman of Donegal IFA Rural Development. He lost his brother Joe to bowel cancer last year.
Through his role with the IFA, Andrew is keen to look after the small farmers ahead of the 2021 CAP reform.
"All of these schemes need farmer input and we are going to try our best to bring in a level-playing field for everyone," he added.