Having grown up in counties Cavan and Monaghan, I have always had a deep appreciation of the challenges faced by local farmers in providing for themselves and their families. Many of these farmers inherited holdings which were simply too small to support standard forms of dairy or tillage farming. As a result, and in order to survive, many turned to other types of farming such as rearing pigs and chickens or growing mushrooms - activities that could easily be accommodated on a few acres of land.
Over time, this led to the area becoming synonymous with intensive pig, poultry and mushroom production. In the heart of this region is the small town of Shercock and it is here that I have come to visit this week's company. With an annual turnover of €240m, Manor Farm is now the largest poultry processor in Ireland and a major contributor to both the local and national economy. Having graduated from the nearby Agricultural College, in Ballyhaise, my first ever full-time job was in the poultry sector in Cavan and so I arrive looking forward to learning more about this amazing company and how it has managed to survive for eight generations.
Pulling into the company's car park, it has a similar feel to parking in the long stay car park at Dublin Airport. With 815 staff, 650 of whom are based here, the importance of this business as an employer in the area, is immediately apparent.
The company's CEO, Vincent Carton, greets me warmly. I can tell instantly that he loves to show new visitors around. His passion is obvious and his enthusiasm contagious.
As we begin our tour of the plant, Vincent explains that more than 850,000 chickens are processed here every week. It's an astonishing number. In addition, the company manages the entire process from the initial hatching of the eggs to final processing of the meat.
"We work with 168 local chicken farm owners," explains Vincent. "Some are breeder farmers who look after the breeder hens that produce a constant supply of fertilised eggs. These are brought to the company's dedicated hatchery nearby and once hatched, are delivered to the next group of farmers called broiler farmers or browers.
"These farmers then rear the birds from chick stage to maturity at 32 days after which they are brought to the factory for final processing. And because we also have our own feed mill that supplies the farmers, we have full traceability of all our birds and can stand over the quality of the entire process," he adds.
The main processing hall is a towering building that would run the full length of the pitch in Croke Park. Given the high volume of birds that pass through here every day - about 180,000 - it's not surprising that there's a pace, rhythm and system to everything that happens here.
As the birds are received in from individual farmers, they are manually lifted onto a conveyor system of hooks, and stunned using a light spray of electrified water which leaves them unaware of the next part of the process. Once slaughtered, they pass through a hot water solution which makes the automated plucking of their feathers much easier. Much of the remainder of the process is also automated. Their heads and feet are removed next and as they pass through machine after machine, other parts such as the wings and the breasts are quickly and efficiently removed. Standing there, almost mesmerised, I can hardly grasp the sheer scale of the operation - a far cry from the hundreds of birds I remember killing and plucking by hand back during my first job in the sector.
Switching effortlessly between what's going on in front of us to more macro conditions, Vincent explains that Ireland now has one of the highest rates of poultry consumption in Europe.
"Ninety per cent of our turnover comes from the domestic Irish market," explains Vincent. "But we also export significant quantities of legs and wings to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Up until 2009, we used to have to pay to dispose of parts such as the feet, hearts, livers and gizzards while today these too are exported," he adds.
Every week, the company ships more than 60 tonnes of chicken feet to China where he tells me that they are a popular crunchy snack, typically cooked and marinated, and often washed down with a beer.
Back in the company's boardroom, Vincent takes me on a fascinating tour of how global economics has shaped the world's food production, the origins of the poultry sector in Ireland and the establishment and progression of his own family's business. Around the walls hang some of the many awards the business has received over the years, as well as images of his numerous ancestors who ran the business before him. Pride of place is a large and beautifully mounted family tree of the Carton Family. For Vincent, family and food are both important.
"We remain a family owned business and all our chickens are produced here in Ireland," insists Vincent. "My brother, Justin and I are the eighth generation of the Cartons to run the business since the family first began trading chickens in the Dublin markets in 1775," he adds. "My ancestor, Peter Carton first set up a livery stable in Dublin's fruit and vegetable markets, where he looked after horses for shopkeepers who had travelled from all over the country to stock up on provisions for their stores," he goes on.
While working there, Peter Carton realised that with so many potential buyers around, there had to be a market for poultry too and so he began selling chickens. In the late 1950s, the introduction, from the US, of the barn-rearing system dramatically changed the entire chicken industry turning it from a seasonal to an all-year-round business.
Instead of farmers having a few hens running around their yard, they could now progress to rearing thousands of chickens in large purpose-built chicken houses.
In 1968, Vincent's father built the country's first ever commercial hatchery in nearby Carrickmacross, in Co. Monaghan. Later came the construction of the current processing facility, in 1970, followed shortly afterwards by the dedicated feed mill to supply local growers with whom the company had begun to work.
Vincent himself grew up in Dublin. Having completed a degree in Commerce in UCD, he joined the business in 1979. For the next four years, he continued to study Cost and Management Accounting by night.
"In many ways my future was planned out for me as it had always been the tradition that the eldest boy in the family would eventually run the business," explains Vincent. "It's a large part, perhaps, as to why a family business like this has survived so long."
In 1987, he and his brother Justin, who had joined the business the previous year, combined their shareholdings to buy out all seven remaining family members.
"Everything continued to go well, until 2003 but that year, the company hit a real crisis," explains Vincent solemnly. "The market had grown increasingly competitive and I realized that we could probably only survive another 18 months unless we made some fundamental changes to our business model," he admits.
The changes that followed not only saved the company but turned its fortunes around. To scale-up production, Vincent invested heavily in new technology, allowing the company to double its output from 6,000 birds per hour to 12,000 per hour. The result was a dramatic improvement in both the company's turnover and profit margins. They were now back in business.
Vincent also realised that the company needed to invest seriously in New Product Development (NPD) if it was to stay relevant to the market. As a result, the company now employs six full-time staff whose sole responsibility is to come up with ideas for new products, new flavours and new ways of cooking chicken products that includes everything from chicken sausages, burgers and encroute or pastry filled chicken fillets to marinated wings and spicy chicken chunks.
As consolidation continued within the industry, four major players would emerge victorious and among these was Manor Farm.
"What happened was that as smaller producers began going out of business, we were able to mop up their customers and business which further helped in our own expansion," explains Vincent.
What's the future for the business, I enquire.
"We are continuing to grow both our Irish and overseas markets and are investing €15m over five years in continually improving our processing plant here in Shercock," explains Vincent. "In addition, we have invested €1.4m in producing the first-to-market, cook-in-the-bag, roast chicken. With no preparation required other than to pierce the packing once before sticking it in the oven, this has already become a big seller for us and we see this as one of our leading products for the future," he adds enthusiastically.
We also recently invested heavily in redesigning our Manor Farm brand to make it stand out as a brand which consumers can identify with as being authentically Irish and as representing genuine quality.
"Until recently, consumers in Ireland lacked clarity as to what poultry products were justified in labeling themselves as Irish. On April 1, mandatory country of origin was introduced across all poultry meat in Ireland meaning that Ireland can only be listed as the country of origin if the meat in question has been born, bred and slaughtered here," explains Vincent.
"It marks a very positive change for the consumer, for Manor Farm and for the survival of the entire poultry sector in Ireland," he insists.
Manor Farm are also active members of 'Love Irish Food', a not-for-profit organisation that aims to help shoppers identify food and drink brands that are manufactured in Ireland, supports Irish producers and helps safeguard the very future of the Irish Food and Drink industry. The company is also a member of Bord Bia's Origin Green programme since 2014, and remains committed to sustainability across all aspects of our business.
Vincent remains committed to sharing the experience of the Carton family business with other family businesses and regularly speaks on the subject of succession planning.
"Tackling the difficult and often taboo subject of succession planning is simply critical if you want to sustain your family business into the next generation," he adds knowingly.
Vincent Carton was born into a family business. Fate dealt him a hand and he duly played that hand well. Today, he possesses an incredible understanding of the Irish and global food industry and the chicken sector in particular. Not only has he managed to sustain the family business, he has grown and scaled it to a level beyond anything his ancestors could ever have imagined. Having lost none of his passion for the business, today, he and Manor Farm continue to play a leading role in helping to safeguard the future of the entire Irish food sector.
For further information see manorfarm.ie
Sunday Indo Business