Sign­ing up to high sand lows of farm­ing life

A cat­tle farmer who’s also a suc­cess­ful builder and a man whose fam­ily quarry firm has been in busi­ness for 83 years tell Lisa Smyth about what they do

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - BY LISA SMYTH

MANY North­ern Ire­land farm­ers have left the land in re­cent years, put off by chal­lenges like low mar­gins and re­lent­lessly bad weather.

But to­day, a 28-year-old de­vel­oper from Co Lon­don­derry de­scribes how he re­turned to farm­ing, snap­ping up land from a farmer who had de­cided to sell up and em­i­grate.

Sean Devine said he’s now liv­ing the dream on Gle­n­amoyle Farm after snap­ping up its 117 acres, which had been in its former owner’s fam­ily for gen­er­a­tions.

Mr Devine also has a prop­erty de­vel­op­ment busi­ness, but said: “Hav­ing the farm now, it’s like I have been re­warded for all the hard work I have put in over the years.”

He added: “I de­cided to go for beef farm­ing be­cause it doesn’t take as much time as dairy farm­ing would.”

‘Beef farm­ing is hard work but I’m lov­ing ev­ery minute of it...’

Ear­lier this year, a farmer from Co Lon­don­derry re­vealed he had be­come so dis­il­lu­sioned with farm­ing he was plan­ning to move to Canada to start again.

An­drew Evans’ farm had been in his fam­ily for three gen­er­a­tions but he was so frus­trated by the chal­lenges fac­ing farm­ers in North­ern Ire­land that he put it up for sale.

How­ever, his de­ci­sion to sell up pre­sented a unique op­por­tu­nity for 28-year-old Sean Devine.

The prop­erty de­vel­oper from Park, Co Lon­don­derry, spent his child­hood help­ing out on the fam­ily farm and it was al­ways his aim to re­turn to agriculture.

Now, five months on, Sean is liv­ing his dream.

He is the proud owner of the 117-acre farm and has plans to turn it into a suc­cess­ful beef farm.

“I don’t re­ally re­mem­ber not be­ing on the farm,” he said.

“From as far back as I re­mem­ber, I helped my dad out on the farm and it was some­thing I al­ways wanted to get back into.

“He al­ways had me out from I was able to run around.

“Hav­ing the farm now, it’s like I have been re­warded for all the hard work I have put in over the years.” After leav­ing school, Sean spent time liv­ing in Lon­don work­ing in con­struc­tion. He moved home where he set up SM Devine Homes, which be­came a lim­ited com­pany in 2014. Sean has ded­i­cated him­self to build­ing a suc­cess­ful busi­ness and putting in place a strong team of em­ploy­ees which has al­lowed him to re­turn to farm­ing. “I was in­ter­ested in Gle­n­amoyle Farm as soon as I heard it was on the mar­ket,” said Sean. “The lo­ca­tion was per­fect for me, as well as the size and it is all in one block, which is great for me so I don’t have to travel all over the coun­try farm­ing. “It’s sur­rounded by one fence so I can do it my­self, I don’t need lots of help. “I de­cided to go for beef farm­ing be­cause it doesn’t take as much time as dairy farm­ing would, for ex­am­ple I don’t have to worry about when a cow is go­ing to calve which is a bit dis­rup­tive. “We have around 80 to 90 an­i­mals on the farm at the mo­ment. “I plan to take them through from about three months up to about 14 months. “I try to get a cou­ple of hours in the morn­ing be­fore work and then I have to be in work right up to five o’clock and then after I fin­ish, I try to spend about two or three hours in the evening as well.

“It’s chal­leng­ing at times but I have a good team at SMD Homes and I’m used to do­ing long hours from I was very young, so it doesn’t bother me.”

Sean plans to in­crease the herd to 300 in the next few years.

“The rea­son why we are tak­ing things slowly is I want to build things up grad­u­ally, so I am in con­trol rather than go­ing in too fast and too quick,” he ex­plained.

He also plans to buy cat­tle di­rect from farms as op­posed to go­ing to mar­kets as he said this re­duces the stress ex­pe­ri­enced by the an­i­mals.

This in turn will im­prove the qual­ity of meat pro­duced.

Sean said the de­ci­sion to buy the farm was a mas­sive com­mit­ment but he paid trib­ute to Ul­ster Bank for as­sist­ing him in the pur­chase.

“I was ac­tu­ally so im­pressed at how easy they made the process, it was so straight­for­ward and work­ing in con­struc­tion and prop­erty de­vel­op­ment, I’m so aware of the chal­lenges that can arise.

“How­ever, Ul­ster Bank worked closely with me through­out the whole process and, from start to fin­ish, the whole process took about three months, which is very quick.

“A lot of that is down to Ul­ster Bank and the help they gave me.”

Hav­ing signed on the dot­ted line only three months ago, Sean is con­fi­dent he will make a suc­cess of the busi­ness.

“I’m lov­ing ev­ery minute of it,” he said.

“There’s lots of main­te­nance to do and a moun­tain of work ahead of me, but there’s a great sense of achieve­ment ev­ery time I get a job done and get the farm look­ing bet­ter.”

How­ever, Sean said farm­ing isn’t for ev­ery­one and ad­vised against getting in­volved in the in­dus­try with­out ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

He said: “I don’t think it would be a good idea. When it comes to farm­ing and even to busi­ness, I think you need not to be afraid of hard work.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try has helped me as well, it’s def­i­nitely given me a bit of an ad­van­tage and has helped me move for­ward with the farm.”

Like many farm­ers across North­ern Ire­land, a par­tic­u­lar source of con­cern for Sean is Brexit.

While Sean in­tends to sell his cat­tle to pro­cess­ing plants in North­ern Ire­land, he is aware that they will prob­a­bly want to ex­port at least some of the meat to the EU.

Prices for his cat­tle are likely to be af­fected as a re­sult.

“It’s hard to know what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” he said.

“I’m a bit ner­vous about it as ev­ery­one is as we don’t re­ally know what Brexit will bring.

“Un­for­tu­nately that’s the most frus­trat­ing thing at the mo­ment.”

W&J Cham­bers Ltd has sur­vived a world war, the Trou­bles and a global re­ces­sion that saw mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies go out of busi­ness since it was set up in 1935.

Over the past seven decades, the fam­ily-run firm has gone from man­u­fac­tur­ing and sell­ing con­crete blocks to be­come a ma­jor man­u­fac­turer and sup­plier of a range of con­struc­tion prod­ucts with an an­nual turnover of £10m.

The com­pany, based in Druma­hoe on the out­skirts of Lon­don­derry, now sup­plies ag­gre­gates, sand, ready to use mor­tar, pre-mixed con­crete and pre-packed sand and gravel across the north west and north coast of the province.

It is also a lead­ing sup­plier of farm feed and eques­trian sup­plies.

Of course, such ex­pan­sion has re­quired mas­sive in­vest­ment and ded­i­ca­tion from suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of the Cham­bers fam­ily.

Gor­don Cham­bers, fi­nan­cial di­rec­tor of the com­pany, ex­plained: “The busi­ness was set up by my grand­fa­ther, John Cham­bers, in 1935.

“He was a farmer by trade but he started up the busi­ness which used hand moulds to make the blocks. There were just a hand­ful of men work­ing for him, the ma­te­ri­als were col­lected and trans­ported from a city cen­tre store to the plant in a mo­tor­cy­cle and side-car.

“They were then de­liv­ered out in a small lorry.”

W&J Cham­bers Ltd started out at Sand­bank in Ball­yar­nett but moved to Lis­dil­lon in Ard­more be­fore re­lo­cat­ing to their cur­rent site in 1958.

By the 1960s, John’s only son, Will, took over the busi­ness with the help of his wife, Rita.

They were joined by their sons, John, David, Gor­don, Wil­liam Ju­nior and Alan, dur­ing

When the con­struc­tion in­dus­try slowed down I made a de­ci­sion to run the busi­ness con­ser­va­tively

Sean Devine spent time work­ing in Lon­don be­fore set­ting up SM Devine Homes

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