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John Murphy and Peggy Gaffney from Campile, Co Wexford know the meaning of hard work when it comes to their farm business, Tinnock Farm Produce.
ver the years, John and Peggy tried various approaches on their 100-acre holding before settling on the current mix of suckler cows, sheep and a flock of 700 hens.
In 2004, they felt the farm was viable but not enough to live on, and both of were working off-farm to generate extra income. Today, the couple’s farmhouse butter and free-range egg business has taken over as the main priority, along with the suckler herd.
“At the time we looked at what we could do to work for ourselves,” John says. “We had 450 ewes when we started at the farmers’ markets in 2004 and we decided to get in some sucklers so we would have beef to sell as well.”
That year they also bought 50 hens.
“The markets were only starting up at the time and it worked very well. We were doing six markets a week. We went to the Dún Laoghaire market for nine years and that was more than a two-hour drive one-way.
“Small farms need to have an add-on enterprise – if not, you’d have to work off farm. It’s a busy lifestyle and the business takes up every day of the year for us.
“The whole process of selling direct from the farm is a lot of work and takes a lot of time to complete. It won’t build up overnight.”
Spurred on by customers’ curiosity about farmhouse butter, Peggy decided to use her mother’s traditional butter recipe.
The couple altered their product range in 2010 due to the financial crisis.
Their meat range was being undercut by supermarkets and John and Peggy saw free-range eggs and butter providing their biggest return and decided to increase their production in these two areas while reducing lamb and beef output.
“It was too much to do it all with sheep and sucklers. Lambing time meant I was out in the field at 3am before I’d head off delivering at 8am,” recalls John.
“I was working over 100 hours a week because of the lambing in the spring time.”
Their attendance at farmers’ markets reduced after 2013 as they moved to selling their products in groceries, hotels and through direct selling.
“From 2010 to 2013, there was a 60pc drop in the amount of meat we were selling,” says John. “Supermarkets were doing special offers and they will never stop, so we decided to only sell eggs and butter from there on.
“Lamb was our biggest seller at the beginning but through the recession, the eggs were very popular because they were a cheaper protein.
“We simply started by going into shops and asking if they would be interested in selling our product. Most were really helpful and interested.
“We are still selling at farmers’ markets through some sellers we know. There is one market seller who takes our butter and sells it and we’ve never met them – it’s all done through email.”
Today, eggs and butter make up the majority of their income. They also keep a 36-cow suckler herd and grow some spring barley.
John does the ploughing himself while a contractor sows and harvests the crop each year.
The suckler herd consists of commercial cross-breeds, and the calving season at Tinnock begins in April each year.
“We aren’t depending on the beef or tillage and thankfully we can make a wage out of the butter and the eggs,” John says.
The 700 hens roam across two acres during the day and are housed in four groups of different ages ranging from 16 weeks to 13 months. They are fed a mix of grass and ground cereals, and approximately 95pc of them lay one egg a day.
They are secured by a six-foot fence which is buried below the ground to keep out unwelcome visitors.
“We had issues with foxes throughout the years but once we put two feet of fencing below ground with a concrete base, the problem was solved,” says John.
The hens are bought at 16 weeks as pullets and are kept until they are 14 months when they are sold on.
“The hens could live for three years but I keep them until they are 14 months because after that their production rate slows down, they may have more rejects and their shell quality declines.
“We buy the hens for €5.50 each and sell them for €1 each at 14 months.”
The butter side of the business came about after three or four people asked at a market if they sold handmade butter.
“I thought to myself, I’ll have it next week,” says Peggy, who now makes it Mondays and Tuesdays every week.
“Butter is hard work to make – I salt it, wash it and slice it by hand.”
She had seen her own mother make butter so knew the basics and today the Tinnock Farm butter is made using full-fat cream and some sea salt.
It is sold to local high-end restaurants including Dunbrody House and Waterford Castle as well as at some farmers’ markets.
Peggy also sells 30 litres of buttermilk each week to supermarkets as well as restaurants and hotels, where it is used to bake bread.
John says the creation of Tinnock Farm Produce was a gradual process, so investment and start-up costs were minimal at the start.
“The hens are our number one priority and the sucklers work as another form of income. Per acre, the hens definitely provide us with more return from our investment.”
The most challenging side of direct selling, in Peggy’s experience, is the mount of work needed to break even.
“Our attendance at markets only became worthwhile after three years,” she says.
But this challenge, like others, has been overcome by the couple’s resilience and commitment to farming.
‘The additional business is essential for a small farm in today’s environment’
What kind of start-up costs were involved?
The creation of Tinnock Farm Produce was very gradual, so investment and start-up costs were minimal.
Currently, the eggs provide the majority of our income but that wasn’t always the case – beef and tillage were more profitable in years gone by. Times have changed, however, and you must change with them.
Were there any financial supports (Leader, start-up grants etc) available?
There was no grant availed of in the start-up of our poultry enterprise, and little investment was needed to get 50 hens on the farm in 2004.
We never received aid in the development of our poultry set-up, and investment was covered by ourselves through income from the sheep and beef.
What would you do differently if starting again?
Perhaps focusing on the egg production could have been done at an earlier stage on the farm.
The hens are our number one priority and the sucklers work as another form of income.
Per acre, the hens definitely provide us with more return from our investment, and for a small farm in today’s environment the additional enterprise is essential.”
What was the biggest challenge in the business?
“The most challenging side of direct selling is the vast amount of work needed to create a food product.
We are out three days a week delivering orders. The evenings are also busy with paperwork.
How do you market yourself and what does the future hold?
“Word of mouth was our main form of marketing and being seen out and about.
Our growth has been steady and persistent. We hope to sustain our current output of eggs and butter, with no considerable growth forecasted for the foreseeable future.