Diversification in rural Northern Ireland

Heather Simpson says 'Cheese please' to one of NI's diversifying successes

Farming in Northern Ireland is no longer all about milk and meat. Now a new crop of entrepreneurial farmers are diversifying to supplement their dwindling farm incomes.

Farming incomes have been badly depressed in recent years and health scares such as BSE and Foot and Mouth have compounded matters. As a result, many farmers have looked to new ways to generate income outside mainstream agricultural activity.

Farm diversification enterprises can vary widely, from jewellery design to paint-balling. However, as 70 per cent of small businesses fail there is a premium on the successful diversifier.

One such business is the Causeway Cheese Company run by Damien and Susan McCloskey. The couple are behind the distinctive range of cheeses, shaped to look like the Giant’s Causeway stones. Launched in 2001, the company has been making ripples in the market place as the first producer of farm-made cheeses in Northern Ireland.

Currently the firm produces five varieties of goat’s and cow’s cheeses for small businesses and hamper companies, from their premises in the Loughguile Millenium Centre.

Before running the thriving firm, McCloskey worked on his family’s 20-hectare beef and sheep farm. Although the farm was successful McCloskey knew expansion would be difficult. When he married Susan in 2000 he opened the business to supplement his income.

‘We diversified into farm made cheese due to a general decline in farm income. We had to support two families so we were never going to survive. We both had a history of working in the food industry and there was very little added value to produce in Northern Ireland. There was no direct competition so we decided to go for it,’ he explained.

McCloskey attended a cheese making course at Loughrey College and completed a business start-up program at Moyle Enterprise Centre in the spring of 2000, before embarking on the project. From there he developed a market plan, which involved surveying hotels and restaurants. ‘We found cheeses are a lot like women, everybody has got their own idea of what’s good for them. After the first year of manufacturing we realised that we needed to make three or more types of cheese.’

As soon as the couple found suitable premises they began their search for equipment, which proved to be one of the company’s major problems. ‘Because there was no farm house cheese makers in Northern Ireland we had to convert a bulk tank into a cheese vat to keep costs down. But production is very labour intensive as all our produce is hand-made.

‘We do all the cutting and stirring and milling by hand and it takes an hour to mill 70 kilos of cheese so we hope to buy a machine that will do the job in about ten minutes.’

Nearly five years on business is booming. Sales have quadrupled and the couple are producing 240 wedges of cheese each week, as well as attracting over 1,000 tourists each year.

Although McCloskey admits farming will always be his number one job he said opening the business was worth the risk. ‘The way things are happening now in farming, soon the business will be supporting the farm. Our long-term plan is maybe in two or three years time to move onto a green field site on the farm and build a tea-room for tourists and maybe use milk from my own cows to make cheese.’

But McCloskey admits there are some drawbacks to combining careers - namely being knackered by constant clothing changes. McCloskey explains: ‘I have to have one set of clothes for the business, then someone will call to say a cow is calving so I have to change again. I end up having two sets of wellies.’

Despite this, the couple enjoy the social aspect of the business. ‘Farming is a very lonely career and you are often working on your own. At least we are out at markets meeting people. When you’re tired after a hard day’s work at least you can chat with them and we have made a lot of friends.’

However, McCloskey warns that diversification is not an option for everyone. ‘You need to be focused and convinced that the idea will work. But be flexible, if things change you have to be prepared to change.

‘If you have a good idea go for it, but diversification is not to everybody’s taste. It is ideal if you have a son or daughter coming home from college or university who has time to take on the project. But the biggest problem is that farmers are very busy people and they don’t have the time.’

Though the Causeway Cheese Company has been successful many businesses fail to get established. ‘The culture in Northern Ireland is not one for supporting new businesses, during our first year companies didn’t want to touch us with a barge pole. People have a habit of waiting to see how a business does before they are willing to get on board, unfortunately some people don’t like to see you succeed. But that mentality is starting to change.’

McCloskey warns the only way to succeed is to research your market and get as much advice as possible. ‘If the cash doesn’t flow, your business will go. Research can be carried out in two ways – Easyjet and the internet. Research your market and then get on a plane and visit someone else who has done it. Your business will survive if you have a good market but it takes time to get your name out there and your business may not be profitable for the first two or three years. However, 30 per cent of new businesses succeed and go on to become incredibly successful.’

The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise operate a scheme called ‘Diversification Challenge’. Its Business Start program helps farming families successfully start a new diversification enterprise. It is targeted at people who have started to invest in their new enterprise or who are in their first year of trading. Participants attend practical workshops led by experts and receive mentoring by professionals. There is also an opportunity to gain a nationally recognised award. For more information contact Challenge Administration on +44 (0) 28 9442 6783.

By Heather Simpson