Just over 18 years ago Anne Marie Gray was expecting her second child.
Áine was due in September and Anne Marie was on maternity leave from her nursing job in August.
So she decided to get turkey chicks to raise for Christmas.
“I said I’d try 50,” Anne Marie recalls. “It was really just to get money together for Christmas.”
All 50 turkeys sold easily. One butcher took 10 and said he would take more the following year. That was the start of poultry on Feighcullen Farm. Based outside Rathangan, Co Kildare, the Grays had then and still have tillage, beef and sheep – but more on that later.
Over the years their turkey business grew and grew. Home orders increased, more butchers took them on, they got into speciality shops like Donnybrook Fair in Dublin and now roughly one-third of their turkeys go to Dunnes Stores. This year the Grays have 6,000 turkeys. They also do some geese.
Billy is Anne Marie’s husband. He is one half of the duo that does the traffic plan for the Ploughing each year. Billy points out that their product sold itself over the years.
“From the day we started all of our business came from word of mouth. All of our customers came to us. We built it up through that format.”
In 2016 the Grays built their own factory on the farm to process their poultry. This was a game changer, Billy says.
“For us to market the product we’re doing, it was a bit like a lad having cows and saying: ‘I’ve milk to sell but I don’t have a milking parlour.’ So that’s why that factory is out there really.”
They then added chickens and ducks to their repertoire to make the factory viable. They now have a weekly chicken kill. As well as butchers, shops and hotels like Carton House and Cliff at Lyons, many restaurants use their chicken too.
All of their poultry is free range and three years ago they began the process of transitioning the rest of the farm to organic. Their beef and lamb are being sold as organic.
On the tillage side of things they’re growing organic oats for Flahavan’s and grain for Irish Organic Feeds.
As to why they converted to organic, Billy says simply that commercial farming wasn’t viable for them.
“The other way you couldn’t farm without the merchant and the merchant was dictating [the price of] everything you bought and sold. We went from an operation where we had a huge amount of land rented before the poultry business. Now with the poultry business, the rented land is gone.
“We changed the whole system around. Plus, that’s not to say going forward we can’t brand our own beef and lamb under our Feighcullen name.”
Billy also feels going organic suited a mixed farming setup like their own.
“Organic farming is very much traditional in the sense that you need to have livestock and tillage. You need the manure off the livestock to complement the tillage, then you need the rotation with the grass as well, so that’s another reason why you’d go organic. Organic is a mixed farming setup no matter what way you work it.”
At this juncture it’s important to state that nowadays Billy and Anne Marie are not in this venture alone. Their children are very much involved. Marie is 21, Áine is 18, Emma is 17 and Billy Jr is nine.
While Billy Jr is a bit young yet for helping with the turkey setup, the girls are head, neck and heels in it, as well as the other enterprises on the farm. The month of December is an extremely busy time for the family, with the turkeys to be killed, processed and distributed to customers.
On Tuesday of last week they started killing, processing, packing and delivering the turkeys. They’re currently working flat-out and usually stop sometime around 4pm on Christmas Eve.
Getting the turkeys out is both an international and local affair. A team of workers from Romania come over for about three weeks to assist them. They’re all from the same village and will fly home again before Christmas. Lots of local people also come on board to help with packing and delivering. Many young people the girls’ age do seasonal work with them.
“The lads driving the vans,” Billy says, “are lads who would have worked with us as teenagers years ago. They take a week off to come working with us.”
Anne Marie, who still nurses part-time but takes holidays for this busy period, explains their work schedule for December. It’s quite something.
“It’s 24 hours a day nearly. In the mornings I get up at half four. I go out and get the factory ready. The lads come in at six o’clock and we’d start bagging the turkeys that were killed the day before. That takes up to about nine o’clock. We all go and have a cup of tea then.
“We come back then and we start killing. We kill up to about half five or six. Then there’s a big wash down in the factory. That’s my work done. Billy and the girls take over after that, gas flushing the turkeys, packing, boxing and moving them into the cold store. That’ll bring them up to about 12 or one o’clock in the morning. They’ll also bring the turkeys over from the fields to the factory in the trailer and jeep during the day. We’ve our weekly chicken kill in the middle of that as well.”
While it’s undoubtedly hard work, the girls do enjoy it.
For Áine, it’s the fact that it only comes around once a year: “I love the novelty of, oh I’m going off to do my turkeys now.”
Marie picks up and adds to her point, as they all do regularly:“There are lots of young people working with us. You’d be working hard but then you’d take your break for your cup of tea or something to eat and we’d have the craic.”
Emma will be involved too, she is just out the day Irish Country Living calls. Billy Jr then is still at an age where he gets a break from it.
“My brother William is very good to us,” says Anne Marie. “He minds Billy because if he was here he probably wouldn’t get to school for the three weeks,” she adds with a laugh.
Chips of the old blocks
Sitting down chatting to the Greys, it’s immediately evident that Feighcullen Farm has a family focus. They all have a role to play.
Marie is studying agricultural science in University College Dublin (UCD), specialising in animal and crop production (ACP). Given the business nature of their farm, I wonder how come she didn’t go towards the business end of the course.
“I actually went into the course through the general path thinking I wanted to do food and agribusiness management (FAM). Before business, animal welfare has to come first before you even consider selling your product. If you don’t have a healthy animal for the market, there’s no point in even trying to focus in on the business end of it.”
Áine is in Leaving Cert and is considering studying ag science too. However, she is a classically trained singer, so music is in the mix also. She got into farming after doing the Angus School Competition in transition year (TY), where students have to rear Angus calves over an 18-month period.
Then when the first lockdown hit she got particularly into farming, going on to buy and rear her own goats that will be going into kid soon. Looking to other countries, Áine feels there are opportunities for goat farming in Ireland.
“A lot of people that visit Ireland from abroad love goat meat. It’s high in protein and low in fat. The lads who come here working from Romania all rear goats themselves and eat them. The man who works in the chipper down the road comes from a massive goat farm over in Italy and he tells us all about it.”
This year the three sisters took charge of lambing and the harvest.
“Me and Áine were doing the tillage this year,” Marie says. “We did everything but Daddy wouldn’t let us sow.”
Áine continues: “He finally let us plough and he let us spread the slurry for the first time, even though for years it was a big no. Emma did the grubbing.”
Billy Jr joined them at times in the cab to supervise. They ran into no problems – well, except one Marie points out with a laugh. “We were fighting over the tractors, because one of the tractors doesn’t have a working radio in it.”
As you read this, the Grays will likely be smack-bang in the middle of their busiest time of year. What started as a small initiative by one member of the family with 50 chicks has grown to encompass them all.
What’s that they say? Families who farm together stay together, isn’t it?
* Irish Country Living visited Feighcullen Farm just before the Department of Agriculture directive on tighter biosecurity measures for poultry was issued due to bird flu. Checking back in with Billy, he said they have the measures in place, are doing well and are looking forward to getting all the turkeys killed and processed for Christmas.