Dairy farm­ers de­ter­mined to add value

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - FOOD & DRINK IRELAND - Joe McNamee talks to farm­ers cre­at­ing thriv­ing dairy busi­nesses IN­NO­VA­TIONS IN DAIRY SEC­TOR

Sev­eral of the co-ops have re­cently in­creased the prices they pay for milk for the first time since Fe­bru­ary (ap­prox­i­mately 32c per litre), some scant com­fort af­ter what has been an es­pe­cially tough cou­ple of years for the dairy farm­ers with prices col­laps­ing in 2015 and 2016. It wasn’t un­til the fourth quar­ter of last year that the 28c per litre bar­rier was bro­ken af­ter more than a year of dairy farm­ers sell­ing at be­low pro­duc­tion cost. What’s more, the farm­ers ap­pear to be the only ones to suf­fer the fis­cal con­se­quences of this col­lapse in a chain reach­ing from cow to con­sumer, with the dairy co-ops con­tin­u­ing to record ris­ing prof­its. Ger­ald Quain, Chair­per­son of the Ir­ish Cream­ery and Milk Sup­plier As­so­ci­a­tion’s Dairy Com­mit­tee, re­cently state that, ‘only farm­ers’ mar­gins are wiped out in a price down­turn’. In­deed, a 2014 Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Food and Ma­rine progress re­port on the Har­vest 2020 blue­print for Ir­ish agri­cul­ture (now su­perceded by Food­wise 2025), while trum­pet­ing in bold pull­out quote that it had es­sen­tially met tar­gets to that point of 33% growth in ex­ports from the agri-biz sec­tor, ad­mit­ted in a fur­ther quote, buried down at the very end of the page, that “the quan­tum of the out­put gains has not trans­lated into in­come gains for pri­mary pro­duc­ers”—in other words, the farmer had yet to see the ben­e­fits. All in all, it has been a har­row­ing time for dairy farm­ers but some have cho­sen to re­take con­trol of their own destiny and set about re­tail­ing at ‘the farm gate’, in some cases, even cut­ting out the mid­dle man en­tirely by sell­ing ei­ther the pri­mary prod­uct or an added-value ver­sion di­rectly to the con­sumer.

Breda But­ler, Cuin­neog Ir­ish Farm­house Coun­try But­ter & Nat­u­ral Milk

The But­ler fam­ily pro­duce the mul­ti­ple award-win­ning Cuin­neog prod­ucts on the fam­ily farm, in Balla, just outside Castle­bar, in Co Mayo. Their coun­try but­ter is one of Ire­land’s pre­mium food prod­ucts, on the menu for the State ban­quet for Queen El­iz­a­beth, sev­eral years ago (and which is also a per­sonal favourite of this writer!).

“Twenty-seven years ago, last April, my par­ents started in our kitchen with a small wooden churn and three cream­ery cans and de­vel­oped their cul­tures in the hot press and around the range and as the busi­ness grew, they moved out of the kitchen. They con­verted a garage and ex­tended that and that’s where we op­er­ate to­day. We pro­duce a tra­di­tional but­ter us­ing tra­di­tional tech­niques: the cream is fer­mented and then churned; the more usual cream­ery but­ter is sweet cream, not aged and churned.

“I would say go for it, make sure you do your re­search, see what’s out there. Make sure the prod­uct has some­thing dif­fer­ent about it, you need to be unique. It helps so much to be able to have some­thing more than the run of the mill on the shelves. The story is im­por­tant as well. They love to meet the per­son who makes the prod­uct and see how pas­sion­ate you are about it. Peo­ple are re­ally in­ter­ested in the ori­gin of food now and how it is be­ing pro­duced and will­ing to pay that bit ex­tra for some­thing unique. Our whole pro­duc­tion process is dif­fer­ent and takes time, it’s not a quick fix, it’s as things were done years ago and a nat­u­ral process as op­posed to a quick in­dus­tri­alised process, that’s the rea­son why you pay a bit more. And if it goes well, you earn more. There is fan­tas­tic per­sonal re­ward as well, and you give it 110% when it’s your own.

Va­lerie Kingston, Gle­nilen Farm

Gle­nilen’s range of mul­ti­ple award-win­ning dairy prod­ucts (creams, but­ter, milk, yo­ghurts, cheese­cakes etc) also fea­tured on that fa­mous State ban­quet for the Queen and also fea­ture promi­nently in a num­ber of Bri­tish stores, in­clud­ing the world-renowned Har­rod’s.

All are pro­duced by Alan and Va­lerie Kingston on their fam­ily farm, lo­cated in Dri­moleague, in West Cork, which, in­ci­den­tally, is now also open for pre-booked farm vis­its.

“Both of us com­ing from farm­ing fam­i­lies go­ing back gen­er­a­tions,” says Va­lerie Kingston, “Twenty years ago, a friend asked me to do the coun­try mar­ket in Bantry with her. I’d just got mar­ried [to Alan] and didn’t want to go out work­ing and thought it would be a nice source of pin money. I brought along yo­ghurt, soft cheese, cream, cheese­cakes and but­ter that I made in our kitchen. It went well from the start but Alan only re­ally took no­tice the day I cam back and said I’d made €100 from two saucepans of milk and a bit of bak­ing. Up to that, he thought he had mar­ried a hip­pie and didn’t quite know what was hap­pen­ing. It took Alan two years to get fully in­volved — when I went into hos­pi­tal to have one of the ba­bies, he had to do the mar­ket.

“What we love is we have met so many in­ter­est­ing peo­ple and been in sit­u­a­tions we would never have been in if we stayed in tra­di­tional farm­ing. We we have learned so much about busi­ness and food, new life skills—it’s life en­rich­ing. It has def­i­nitely helped fi­nan­cially and in terms of job sat­is­fac­tion—be­ing able to pro­vide em­ploy­ment in a ru­ral area [for 40 employees]. If we were still farm­ing in the tra­di­tional sense, one of us would have to be out work­ing in a job — and hav­ing grown up on a dairy farm, I ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing able to go off on hol­i­day!

“Def­i­nitely start off small—if you can, in a farm­ers mar­ket. We didn’t have to do any fea­si­bil­ity study for the LEO. We kept all the de­tails of what we did in the mar­kets. They could see that. You build up con­tacts, con­fi­dence. You get di­rect feed­back and only low in­vest­ment is re­quired. It’s time and ef­fort and en­ergy and look­ing back, you think, ‘how did you do it?’ That isn’t sus­tain­able over a long pe­riod but the adrenalin keeps you go­ing with the won­der­ful feed­back from the mar­ket, it gives you the con­fi­dence to go on to the next level.”

Kevin Kennedy of Anú Dairy, whose or­ganic but­ter, which is rich in healthy Vi­ta­min K2, has plans to bring his prod­ucts to Ger­many, USA and other ex­port mar­kets.

Alan and Va­lerie Kingston of Gle­nilen Farm, West Cork, pro­duc­ers of award-win­ning yo­ghurts (be­low) and other dairy prod­ucts.

Breda But­ler’s Cuin­neog Ir­ish Farm­house Coun­try But­ter & Nat­u­ral Milk, one of Ire­land’s pre­mium food prod­ucts, was on the menu for the State ban­quet for Queen El­iz­a­beth.

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