Farmer finds harvest on the Internet


They have marched in Brussels, Dublin and the county towns of Ireland, but what else can Irish farmers do to take back control of their own destiny?

Actually, quite a lot, according to one Wexford farmer who says those who think they have no choice but to wait with trepidation for agriculture ministers in Brussels to decide their future have got it wrong.

Paddy Berridge is no ordinary farmer; he also runs Carrigbyrne Farmhouse Cheese, the company he founded on his Adamstown holding near Enniscorthy in 1981 and which now produces some of Ireland's best-known brands of camembert and brie.

"The problems in farming at the moment can be traced to the fact that farmers are no longer close enough to the market place," says Mr Berridge. He believes other farmers can follow his route to success by developing niche products of their own.

Mr Berridge argues that a sound business is balanced on three "legs", production, finance and marketing.

"There's no problem with production in farming, and finance is pretty good; the banks are willing to lend as farmers develop. But it's the marketing aspect that farmers need to take on."

It was precisely that kind of expertise that Mr Berridge developed before taking over the family farm in 1980, the year before he set up Carrigbyrne.

Eschewing the traditional route into farming, via agricultural college, he opted instead to do business studies at Trinity College Dublin and later spent three years working for a firm which made agricultural machinery.

Given control of the family holding at the age of 24, he embarked on an adventurous path. He advertised in France for a cheesemaker, took a two-hour course in interviewing at the Irish Management Institute, and then headed to Paris to interview the five applicants.

Only two turned up, one of whom was a "non-starter". The other was Alain Girod, who is still Carrigbyrne's production manager today.

Getting people in with the right skills to help you develop your business - be it in tourism, food or even manufacturing - is one of the keys to success, he believes. Instead of simply turning your farmhouse into a B&B, you should get a hotel manager to run that side of the business, he says.

Farmers with much smaller holdings than Mr Berridge's 300-acre dairy and forestry enterprise might scoff at such a suggestion. But he points out that there is plenty of support available for those with good ideas who are prepared to "start small".

"Bord Bia, for example, will give 100 per cent funding for feasibility studies, but how many farmers even know that?" The fact remains, however, that it tends to be the bigger, relatively well-off farmers who take the plunge into business.

Dr Tom Kelly, Teagasc regional development manager for the south-east, points out that the ready availability of jobs in the region provides a more attractive income alternative for many small farmers than the risks of setting up on their own.

Despite the region having bigger, wealthier farmers than elsewhere, more and more farmers there are going part-time or dropping out altogether by taking up jobs outside agriculture.

And while the growth in jobs is providing opportunities for some farmers, for others it is proving an additional burden; bigger farmers find it increasingly difficult to find labour, says Dr Kelly.

"Compared to other jobs the hours are unsociable and farmers can only afford to pay so much. Bigger farmers who relied on having one or two employees now find that those one or two are difficult to find."

The large producers' problems do not stop there. With almost 60 per cent of total farm income in the region coming through the "cheque in the post" from Brussels, few farmers will be immune from the outcome of this week's negotiations on the future of the CAP.

For some, however, the uncertainty of a future dictated by the CAP has already proved too much. Aidan Byrne, former Carlow county secretary of the Irish Farmers' Association, once believed that farming was in his blood.

Now he works for a company which specialises in setting up and servicing Internet Websites for a range of corporate, sporting and other clients, and his farming days are all behind him.

His educational achievements - certificate from agricultural college, diploma in farm management from the Farm Apprenticeship Board, six-month scholarship in New Zealand - attest to how seriously he took his future in farming.

But in the end, with 35 acres and a milk quota, the sums did not add up. Mr Byrne had intended to increase his enterprise by leasing more land or combining his quota with that of another farmer. But the returns he could expect just were not going to be enough to support his wife and two young children.

The turning point came when Mr Byrne became involved in a project in Ballon, Co Carlow, which saw 38 full-time farmers attending a programme called "Strategic Planning for Enterprise Creation". The 26-week programme concluded last spring and now several of the participants are in the process of starting their own businesses.

Up to the recent past, he believes, the farmers involved were optimistic about the future and would have been reluctant to become involved in such a programme. "But some of them were starting to say, `Things are getting tight, what am I going to do?' "

Mr Byrne was asked to co-ordinate the programme, drawn up by Ballon-Rathoe development association in conjunction with the rural development department of UCD. This, he says, was the first real taste he got of off-farm employment.

Around the same time as the Ballon initiative, the Carlow executive of the IFA became involved in a desktop publishing project with a Dublin company called Interactive Multimedia Systems (IMS).

Out of that came a company called Internet Publishing Services, for which Mr Byrne now works full-time, mainly from his home in Clonegal.

"When I took it on initially I only saw it as a supplementary income; I still believed my future was in farming. But about seven or eight months ago I had to take a very cold, clinical look at my situation."

He discovered he had a flair for the work he now does. "There was a good opportunity for me to progress so I took the opportunity."

Mr Byrne does not offer his experience as a panacea for all farmers concerned about their futures, but he now accepts that his own future will not be in agriculture.

He has no regrets: "Farming was a vocation for me. It's difficult for anyone who comes from a farming background to take the decision to remove themselves from farming . . . You see that from the number of people who stick with it, no matter what the ups and downs.

"But I'm totally focused on what I'm doing now. The hard part was the initial decision . . . but once I made the decision everything else seemed to slip into place."