How are you for time?” I ask, routinely, as I set up my recorder to interview Kevin Scully at his Laois farmyard.
I don’t quite anticipate the answer that I receive.
“I have a rabbi coming at 11.30am,” he responds, eyes twinkling beneath the peak of his baseball cap.
And no, it transpires, there isn’t a synagogue a stone’s throw from the M7 in Vicarstown – rather Kevin and his family are currently completing an order to export their gluten-free, certified organic oats to make matza crackers for the Jewish festival of Passover.
As everything must be produced in line with kosher principals, a rabbi must be on site for each stage to ensure that their sacred dietary laws are strictly adhered to. For instance, if more than five drops of rain fall on the combine while harvesting, not a single oat from that particular cut can be used to fulfil their order.
“We normally come back into the yard, empty everything out of the combine [to be used instead in their own product range], hoover out the combine, clean it, and start again,” explains Kevin. (Considering the summer we just had, he must have had the Child of Prague on overtime.)
This kosher harvest is just one example of what makes Kevin’s farm and family business, The Merry Mill, unique. At the end of this month, the Scullys will travel to Brussels, where they are shortlisted in the 2023 EU Organic Awards in the best organic food processing SME (small and medium enterprise) category. This is an extraordinary achievement, considering that Kevin is a self-taught miller who set up the business in 2015 to fulfil his ambition to be on his farm full-time.
Laois to Nepal
With time on the short side before the rabbi arrives, we rattle through the back story. Kevin’s grandmother was born and reared on the farm here, which was then inherited by his father, who milked cows before converting to sucklers and tillage.
Kevin himself originally trained as a butcher, but jokes that he “went off looking for myself” soon after, trekking through Thailand, Cambodia, China, Laos, Nepal and India.
It was in Kathmandu, however, that the seed was planted – literally – for his future business.
“I was fascinated in Nepal and India with the people in the mountains all saving the crops,” he explains. “It was life or death up there. The work and the endeavour these people were putting in; but the joy they were finding in it as well. I got great inspiration up there.”
Sadly, Kevin’s father passed away in 1996, and he returned home to farm. He also went on to marry his wife, Jenny, and have four daughters: Sadbh, Aoife, Roisin and Niamh.
With a young family, Kevin had no option but to work off-farm on building sites to make ends meet. But?
“I was going to work every day and I was always feeling in myself: ‘This is wrong. I should be able to make a living from this farm,’” he recalls.
“It’s not a huge farm, but after being inspired by these people on the side of a mountain making a living, I was thinking I should be able to do something here to make a living.”
Around 2006, Kevin made the decision to convert to organics, growing his own grain to feed his sucklers, explaining it was “a sensible option … on economics alone” as it slashed his input costs.
“Yet, even within organics, there still wasn’t an income unit on the farm,” he continues.
“I was allergic to concrete [building], but I was making money off it, so I couldn’t leave my job, which I was really looking to do. So, I needed to add value to what I had on the farm.”
There were a few false starts, such as a mobile crush that Kevin developed and brought to market at the National Ploughing Championships, but didn’t take off.
“But there’s no such thing as failure in business,” he reflects. “It’s just a learning curve.”
The “lightbulb moment” came courtesy of his daughter Niamh while they were feeding the cattle one morning.
“I was giving them rolled oats and Niamh said, ‘Daddy, can we eat that?’” he recalls.
“I went back home, did research on milling porridge, found a guy out in the corner of Russia with a hair dryer and a food blender and he was knocking the whole lot out with a blender. And I had four daughters so I had plenty of hair dryers!
“It took me a couple of days to get a bowl of porridge and I thought it was amazing. Everyone else thought it was OK and I persisted at that for about six months and they thought I was going insane. And then from there I thought: ‘OK, let’s see if I can make a business out of this.’”
Leap of faith
Through his research, Kevin identified that there was nobody who was both growing and milling gluten-free organic oats in Ireland. He went on his travels again, this time to Austria, to source a stone mill capable of performing micro milling, and then to Germany and the Czech Republic for further equipment.
Kevin also made another important trip: to the bank. Setting up a mill on the farm meant investing over €100,000 and while he did receive support from LEADER, he also had to take a financial leap of faith.
“The banks were nervous of it to be honest with you because there was nobody doing it and their normal philosophy is if there’s nobody doing it, there’s nobody doing it for a reason,” he says.
“The loan was given off the deeds of the farm; it was a risk I took.”
Kevin launched The Merry Mill at Bloom in 2016, but credits the unfailing support that he received from his family for the venture.
The first year, for instance, when they sowed five acres of gluten-free oats, all the family hand cleaned the batch beforehand to make sure that there was no wheat, barley or rye in the crop, and walked the fields as it grew to pull any rogue grains to avoid any risk of cross-contamination.
It worked: their oats consistently test below 5 ppm/parts per million for gluten; well below the EU regulation of 20 ppm.
Kevin says that Jenny and the girls were also crucial when it came to sales and marketing; especially with getting the word out on social media.
“I had four daughters who were very computer literate. Without a family, you couldn’t do this. I couldn’t have done this on my own
“The biggest challenge for any business is selling a product and I only realised that when I was knee deep in it and all this investment made in equipment. We had a really good bag of porridge here on the farm, but how do I sell it?” says Kevin, who at that point would have considered himself “computer illiterate”.
“I had four daughters who were very computer literate. Without a family, you couldn’t do this. I couldn’t have done this on my own.”
Indeed, he says that 60% to 70% of their sales are online and it was actually through Instagram that the kosher project came about, as that customer was looking for “single-source, single-origin, certified organic, certified gluten-free oats, grown in a quiet part of the world”.
“They said it was only ourselves and one more guy in Montana in the world who was compatible to fill the order for what they need,” says Kevin.
Local support, however, has been their lifeline. The Merry Mill now has five key products: gluten-free organic oats, oat flour, pancake flour, overnight oats and, most recently, a line of organic oats (not GF) that they are getting contract milled from Tirlán.
Having started with five acres the first year, in the second year they planted 10, then 20, 30, 60 and now, 130 acres, having taken on the lease of another farm to meet demand.
“Before I started here, there was no income unit on the farm. There’s now two full-time income units and three part-time,” says Kevin.
Growth has not come without its challenges, however.
“We took on a new farm last year, I took on an extension here of the mill, we stretched ourselves to the limit; we were an elastic band about to break last year,” says Kevin.
“But without risk, there is no reward.”
The next big event will be the EU awards. But before that, there is the National Ploughing Championships next week. Last year exceeded their expectations.
“We thought we had enough stock for the three days, but we sold it on day one,” says Kevin, who ended up milling every evening to have enough stock for the show.
But he doesn’t take any of it for granted.
“I used to drive to Dublin every day to a building site and come home and farm with the headlights in the evening,” he smiles.
“Now, I’m a full-time farmer.”