Dairy farmers determined to add value
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Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine progress report on the Harvest 2020 blueprint for Irish agriculture (now superceded by Foodwise 2025), while trumpeting in bold pullout quote that it had essentially met targets to that point of 33% growth in exports from the agri-biz sector,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.