After dairy farming for over 30 years in Carrickboy, Co Longford, David Burns was faced with the immense pressure to either expand or diversify, and he chose to diversify.
"I had been milking in a six-unit herringbone parlour since 1977 and I had a 54,000 gallon quota," says David. "But when nitrates regulations came in, I just couldn't sustain growth. I was faced with this huge pressure to expand but this would mean investing a lot of money to improve facilities and I wasn't prepared to do that. So I got out of the dairying and went into beef. I quickly found that beef farming was not for me. Basically, I didn't enjoy it and didn't like having to take whatever price I was given."
In 2015, David took a big step and got out of stock completely, leasing the land to a local farmer and pedigree cattle breeder, David Cummins of Listakem Glen Farm.
Down through the years, David had always grown his own maize as feed for his cattle, so he decided to put this experience to good use.
"We always had winter milk and found we couldn't grow enough grass, so I'd always sown my own crops. I started contracting for others, which went well, and I also experimented with selling sweetcorn to supermarkets, which I didn't like - I felt I wasn't getting enough for my products and it was so impersonal. We then tried farmers markets, which turned out to be great experience for us in the long run, and we started dealing with restaurants, selling our produce to chefs. That's what really got our current business going."
The Burns' farm has always been enriched with the sweet scent of elderflower, which David's wife Martina, now a retired teacher, had been using to make cordial.
"The pressure to expand the dairy had been building for some years before we actually got out of it, and in the build-up, we planted 900 elderflower saplings in one of our cow paddocks," says David. "That was in 2012. We had been toying with the idea of producing elderflower cordial for retail and wanted to set the wheels in motion, so the elder trees could be maturing."
David then brought some of the cordial he and his wife had made from the existing elderflower growing wild on their farm to chefs they had been dealing with.
"They all loved it and convinced us we had a marketable product. At that stage, nearly all the elderflower cordial for sale in Ireland was imported. We decided to launch an Irish elderflower cordial and it all took off from there," he says.
Elderflower trees take between three and five years to come into flower production, so in the time David and Martina waited for their saplings to produce enough flowers for a harvest, they picked from the elder trees already growing wild on their farm and also gathered from neighbouring farms after getting permission.
They then began making their cordial in the kitchen of a 'granny flat' on their farm and Martina completed food safety training before registering as a food producer with the Health Service Executive (HSE). In an attempt to make production more efficient, they purchased a cooking kettle from England.
"We bought it second hand," says David. "I went to England to see it before we bought it and it was working perfectly. But when we brought it home and started using it, it malfunctioned. That was our first year. We had to revert to the old-school technique and cook everything on a ceramic hob in two saucepans in our own kitchen. We made 2,500 bottles in six weeks. This year, we made 2,700 bottles in one day."
Upon registering with the HSE, David and Martina were told they could not bring industrial equipment into a domestic kitchen, so they decided to knock an old calf house on the farm and build a factory in its place, as well as transforming an old disused cow byre into a labelling room.
David then designed a pasteuriser, which he had made in Dublin. Martina says that the one plant now gives them a few products. "We pick the flowers in early summer and infuse them in sugar syrup, and that's the basis of our cordial. It is filtered, bottled and then pasteurised.
"We try to keep it as natural as possible. We also do a sparkling version, which we have to outsource production of as we currently don't have carbonation equipment," says Martina. "Then the flowers we don't pick develop into berries, which we use to make elderberry cordial."
The couple planted another 1,200 elder trees in 2017, so that as the business grew, more trees were maturing to meet the demand. The trees are managed sustainably, without pesticides or herbicides. "We are members of Bord Bia's sustainability initiative Origin Green. We monitor our raw-material sourcing and our energy inputs, and try to run every aspect of the business in an environmentally responsible way," says David.
Richmount Cordials now employ 10 local, seasonal staff each year to help with the flower harvest. The couple say they each bring something different to the business.
"Martina takes responsibility for cooking, food safety records, invoicing and she keeps the accounts," says David. "I'm technically minded and take care of the logistics of the business. I source and maintain the equipment.
"I'm responsible for sales and marketing. We think it is important to maintain personal contact with our stockists." Martina added: "His strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa. We complement each other."
Richmount Cordials' products can be found mostly on the shelves of independent retailers rather than supermarkets. "It's more of a discretionary purchase and it's suited to the smaller independent retailers. We also started selling online in response to the coronavirus pandemic and sales are going really well," says Martina.
Since launching their products, David and Martina have won an array of awards - bronze in the Bank of Ireland Start-Up Awards in 2014, the Drinks Awards in the Irish Food Writers' Guild in 2015, runner-up in the Local Enterprise Awards in 2016 and silver in Blás na hEireann in 2018.