Family farm: cream of the crop

Glenilen Farm has gone from a farm kitchen enterprise to a successful export business with an annual turnover of €4m, writes Michelle McDonagh


In the late 1990s when Valerie Kingston decided to use some of the milk from the small dairy farm that has been in her husband Alan’s family for generations, to make yoghurts and cheesecake to sell at the local farmer’s market, she never thought her hobby would grow into a successful business with an annual turnover of €4 million that employs 33 local people full-time.

These days, products from the Glenilen Farm range can be found on supermarket shelves all over Ireland and also in Britain and the business is continuing to grow.

Resting on the banks of the river Ilen in Drimoleague, west Cork, Glenilen Farm is an idyllic setting for a dairy farm. The Glenilen cows, who provide the vital ingredients, roam freely on the lush hills of the 50-acre farm.

Alan’s parents live just down the lane. His brother, uncle Peter, is a vegetable farmer a couple of fields away while uncle David is a nearby suckler farmer and full-time pastor at the Methodist church in Bantry. The Kingstons have three children, Sally (14), Grace (12) and Ben (9) .

Sitting in the pretty duck egg blue kitchen of the farmhouse that remains the heart of Glenilen Farm, they tell me about the business that they have nurtured from this very kitchen.

A food science graduate from UCC, Valerie had worked in the industry for a while before marrying Alan in 1997. It was after the first of their three children, Sally, was born in 1999 that she bought a milk separator and started making yoghurt and cheesecakes to sell in the Bantry country market.

“The farm was very small and was just about viable. The farmers’ markets had just started taking off around then so the timing was excellent. I invested in two big saucepans from Roches Stores to pasteurise the milk, which Alan thought was a waste of money,” Valerie laughs. “I made the yoghurt in a saucepan and incubated it in a box with a blanket thrown over the top. As a toddler, Sal used to put the labels that I printed from the computer onto the yoghurt jars.”

Valerie worked from her kitchen for five years from 1997 to 2002 before they built their first cheese house across from the farmhouse which has since been dwarfed by the huge new cheese house built in 2008.

“I was your typical dairy farmer who thought you don’t process your own milk. You send it to the co-op and they deal with it. Making stuff in your kitchen and selling it under an umbrella at farmer’s markets was not for farmers who wanted to get big, in my mind,” says Alan.

The move to the big cheese house in 2008 allowed the Kingstons to expand the business significantly and to take on more people.

The only farmers’ market they do now is Mahon in Cork city every Thursday, and they continue to do shows like Bloom and the Ploughing Championships .

Planning permission has just been granted for a new visitor centre at the farm where children can learn at first-hand how butter, cheese and yoghurt are made.

“The idea behind the visitor centre is to educate children about where food comes from, which is an area of increasing interest with a new food module being introduced to the Transition year curririculum. Of course, the company has to be profitable and make money for us, and we are not perfect but we aspire to being important in our community in terms of employment and also in teaching kids how butter is made,” says Valerie.

It is very important to Valerie that the products being made in the big cheese house taste the same as they did when she was making them in the kitchen. Their wide range of products – which includes yoghurt, cheese cakes, handmade country butter, cream and lemonade – contain no additives or preservatives for that authentic farmhouse taste.

The company’s turnover to year-end February 2013 was €3.7 million and the projected turnover for the next year is €4 million, with exports to Britain accounting for 17 per cent of the total.

Alan explains: “We plan to grow the Irish market through new product development, but the potential for growth in the UK is huge as the market there is so big. It’s also very competitive and very tight so we need to grow in volume there to make it viable.

In April, we launched our products in 50 Tesco stores in the UK and we also have a very strong presence in Waitrose. We are working on a new range of desserts for launch in Ireland later in the year and we hope to open our new visitor centre next year.”

The Kingstons have just launched a new range of Glenilen Farm Yummy Yoghurts for children and fromage frais-style yoghurts, for babies from six months, in supermarkets across Ireland.

Produced with only three ingredients – live yoghurt, fruit and the minimum amount of sugar – both ranges are again made without using any additives or preservatives.