Some stories unfortunately have to start at the end of one person’s journey.
Just before my visit to Blackcastle Farm was over, John and I toured the meat processing facility. Standing at the door, with my Piedmontese sausages and steaks in hand, I asked John: “What do you want me to say about Ann’s illness?”
“Nothing much, she wouldn’t want that to be the focus,” he replied.
However, unfortunately Ann passed away on 10 January 2021. John wished to proceed to tell their story as that is what Ann would have wanted. Ann’s passion for all facets of their business was clear for all to see. This was a passion for what they, as a family, had built but it was also a need considering what was coming.
Ann wanted to create a business that would enable John to have time, when it became necessary, to look after their children; Sarah, Joann and Evin Ned.
Beef at Blackcastle Farm
John is the fourth generation of the family to farm at Blackcastle Farm, near Two-Mile Borris, Co Tipperary.
“I’ve been farming here since I was 15, always in beef.”
Up until they diversified, John focused on the best sucklers. He took the advice of Teagasc and tried to eke out a margin. However, John admits “we weren’t making any money and we were looking for an alternative to boost our income”.
In 2005, inspiration came when Irish Farmers Journal editor Justin McCarthy wrote about a trip to the Italian Piedmont region. While Justin may have been impressed with the quality of the Piedmont cattle, John was impressed with the price.
“They were getting probably double what we were getting.”
He started researching and within a short space of time, John, Ann, their baby Sarah, as well as Ann’s parents Con and Nora, were off to Italy on a fact-finding mission.
John admits that the Irish and Italian markets are different. Italy is a beef importer, Ireland an exporter. But what really struck John was “the money was there, it was in beef”.
“One, the farmers have more power as meat native to the region is sold at a premium. Two, it’s well marketed as a local, artisan native product. Third, buyers place a value on consistency. You go into the Italian factories and all the animals are exactly the same size, like peas in a pod. They referred to the Irish carcases, as mongrels; great meat but with a bit of this breeding and a bit of that breeding, there is no consistency in size and that is not attractive to buyers.”
And fourth? John says that the beef is a high-quality product with unique attributes. Here comes the sales pitch, I mock, but he has his information ready.
“The Piedmontese is different in a number of ways – almost like a different species. Beef is hung for three or four weeks to make it tender. With regular beef, if you ate it within a week of killing it, you’d want a chain saw to get through it. This meat, in Italy, they hang for a day and eat the day after, it’s that tender.”
The Italian experience
So off to Italy the Commins family went with no intention of buying anything.
“But on the last day, Con, who was retiring before we left, said he was going to buy two heifers. So I said I’ll buy two too.”
Ann recalled: “And mammy said: ‘Buy them in-calf so at least next year you’ll have a calf.’”
John and Con were so happy with the animals that they went back and bought a load of 25 which was the real start of the journey.
“Once the cattle landed here, typical Ireland, neighbours called to see them and some went and bought some themselves. There’s about four herds in this parish alone.”
The business model
Currently, John has his own herd but also buys Piedmontese cattle from other farmers with the longer-term plan to set up a cooperative.
“I would buy the animals and sell them under the Blackcastle Farm brand. At a reasonable, fair price. All of us had one thing in common; frustration with the factories and the price. This is why everybody went on that journey and bought the cattle – to see if they could get out of total dependence on factories.
But just having the breed of animal is not enough to sell under the Blackcastle brand.
“I want them from a farm that is sustainable and biodiversity rich, not organic but I don’t want intensive-fed cattle either.”
The breed won’t finish on just grass alone John explains. “They need a bit of grain and we are looking at red clover as a possible way of finishing. We limit grain but we can’t eliminate it. We don’t use pesticides at all and use very little chemical fertiliser. They are high-maintenance cattle, they’re softish. Where they make up for it is when you kill a bull – you get a 70-72% killout on the carcass, which is huge.”
Naïve? Maybe! Change it? Never
John admits he went into this a little naïve.
“The plan initially was to sell them to the lucrative Italian market. But we didn’t do our research and there were two problems we didn’t foresee. First, we didn’t have enough of them to be taken seriously. And when we did get our numbers up, they still didn’t want them because they didn’t have Italian tags so no premium in Piedmont.
By then, John knew that for this to work, they needed to sell it in Ireland.
Getting a return is challenging
Blackcastle Farm is incorporating many of the facets consumers are after, but John admits that from an economic point of view it’s challenging.
“The challenge is in getting a market for our meat to allow us to do all that extra stuff. Selling just into supermarkets won’t work because I can’t compete with the big factories by killing two animals a week.
“On scale alone, I can’t compete so I have to get a premium for my meat. Our beef is unique in that it is lean and much lower in fat than conventional beef. It also takes 30% less time to cook, resulting in a more accentuated flavour while UCC research has shown it to be so tender.”
Ann, who brought her own skill set to the business from working in the county council, advised that farmers need to keep thinking about what comes next.
“We travelled to see and learn new things. You can’t come up with new ideas leaning over a gate every day. You have to read the papers, you have to look at new things.”
John recently completed a postgraduate diploma with Trinity in innovation and entrepreneurship, which he qualified for through prior learning.
Ann felt that this was a brilliant course for anyone interested in pivoting their business.
“The course was about bringing out what people already had. No one person will have all the skills needed for any business. It’s about having a range of skills around you and, to be honest, you have to think on your feet all the time. It’s hard to keep a small business going, hard to manage cashflow. We had no major debt going into it. I worked for the county council in inter-agency work such as economic, cultural tourism and arts projects. So I knew how to make applications and fill in all the paperwork for the funding.”
This proved vital in the conversion of the building.
“People have such fear of trying things in Ireland, they are not looking at new things even though they know they’re losing money in suckling. That said, you do need a safety net when you have a young family. We didn’t have a mortgage, we built onto John’s family home. The whole thing for me is getting the balance right.”
Putting that into practice
Ann’s brother, also John, and his partner Avril are food scientists and utilising this expertise in conjunction with UCC, Ann and John developed their “pride and joy” a 1% fat sausage.
“We weren’t prepared to add pork or fat and discovered that including all parts of the carcass except for the steaks was the solution. Aldi bought 3,000 packets off us to see how they would go and after four days they had a 96% sale.”
The Commins family purposely went down the added-value route, adding spiced and cured beef to their range. And the innovation continued. With a fully approved kitchen (and outdoor pizza oven), they also have a farm tourism business running sustainable living, biodiversity, butchery, art, textiles and traditional skills workshops such as building a stone wall.
“People come and want to learn but the whole ethos of the workshops is that they’re a bit of craic.”
Although everyone can say that time is an issue in their business, coming from Ann Commins makes it very real in more ways than one.
“The biggest problem we have is time.”
On behalf of the Irish Farmers Journal, I want to extend our sincere condolences to the Commins family on the death of Ann.