When most farmers think of ‘consumers’, they envisage people ‘far away’ who purchase their farm produce once a range of intermediaries, from processors to retailers, have taken their cut.

But for one entrepreneurial Clare couple, Cathal and Bronagh O’Rourke, the connection with the consumers of their Burren beef is very direct.

In addition, they have broadened their vision of the consumer in today’s increasingly urban society to include tourists, social farming clients, and even wedding parties, all hungry to ‘consume’ an authentic, meaningful experience of life on the land.

Flourish where you are planted

Cathal, a sixth-generation farmer, grew up farming with his father, John, a well-known mart manager in nearby Gort, and his mother Lila.

The 180ha farm is highly diverse, with a mixture of fertile ground – once used for sugar beet – and rougher areas of limestone pavement, lakeshore, woodland, turlough and fen.

While the farm was extensively ‘reclaimed’ in the 80s and 90s, and intensively farmed with a focus on cattle and sheep, it retains an impressive array of habitats and archaeological features – including the ruins of the original parish church for the local village of Boston.

After college, Cathal began a career in banking, ending up in Galway, where he would later meet Bronagh, at the time a sales and marketing rep, originally from Cavan.

Great changes were soon to come: the birth of their first daughter, Annabelle, in 2011 (followed later by Isla and Alice), the economic crash of 2008 – which saw Cathal taking redundancy in 2013 – and the declining health of John, who passed away in 2018.

Big decisions had to be made and so, in 2019, Cathal and Bronagh decided to pool their considerable, complementary talents (farming, banking, marketing, comms, etc) and try to ‘make a go’ of the farm.

“You have to flourish where you are planted” is Bronagh’s mantra – and so it proved to be over the following years.

Looking afresh at the land

They began by looking afresh at the farm, in terms of what it could offer to the consumer. What they saw was quality produce reared in a stunning landscape.

While Cathal initially began to expand numbers to bolster income for his growing family, he could see from his part-time work in local marts that the writing was on the wall for this conventional ‘solution’.

Cathal and Bronagh have pooled their talents and energy to re-imagine how they, as farmers, could meet the needs of the modern-day consumer, creating a vibrant and diverse on-farm business as a result.

Bronagh, for her part, began exploring agri-tourism options, using Facebook to advertise everything from glamping to forest bathing, learning ‘on the hoof’ from their early successes and failures.

But another unexpected challenge lay ahead: the COVID pandemic. Tourism options suddenly vanished and food supply chains were disrupted, so Bronagh’s entrepreneurial enthusiasm pivoted towards the direct selling of their meat.

With a grant from the local enterprise office, she set up www.burrenpremiumbeef.ie, quickly selling the first two heifers they marketed in 2020.

And so, they were off: fast forward three years and they now sell all their finished Hereford and Angus stock through three channels – local farmers’ markets, direct to consumers nationwide (with Cathal as delivery man), and to restaurants, including esteemed venues like Dublin’s Hawksmoor steakhouse.

Sold fresh, not frozen

Such is demand currently that they no longer need to advertise, or send any unsold stock to the factory. Customers are attracted by the meat’s provenance, taste and the fact that it is sold fresh, not frozen.

They slaughter and butcher locally, year-round, at an average age of 34 months – finishing earlier would require additional housing and supplementary feed, which they feel is far less sustainable.

Looking ahead, Cathal plans to go “backwards to go forwards” by going organic, reducing numbers, phasing to a ‘calf to beef’ system, and possibly adding lamb to their product range.

The O’Rourke’s journey into agri-tourism was equally swift and successful.

Much of the hard graft was initially done by Bronagh, who harnessed social media to invite people to engage in a “Burren farm experience”. The concept resonated with consumers seeking something different.

Today, the couple focus exclusively on pre-paid group tours, honing in on what visitors most value: an authentic and honest insight into Irish farming life. Guests can have a cuppa in the shed, hay bales for seats, admire the livestock, views and wildlife, and hear whatever stories Cathal has to share on the day.

Cathal enjoys this unexpected role as tour-guide: it brings diversity, balance and added value to his work life – though he still enjoys hibernating during the quieter winter months.

A marriage of talents

The social farming venture is something more recent, with three participants and a support worker visiting every Monday for 10- to 12-week blocks.

Bronagh, who previously worked with the Special Olympics, feels it’s one of the most rewarding things they have ever done. It doesn’t require anything special – simply spending quality time together, sharing tasks like herding or gardening.

For this farm family, it’s a great start to the working week, helping them both feel grounded.

As for wedding parties: a distant relation from the US was recently married – on a rainy August day in the shelter of the church ruins – in what was a most memorable experience, for all the right reasons.

Cathal and Bronagh’s marriage of skills is proving as fruitful and exciting as any newlyweds could hope for. The couple are refreshingly unburdened by the expectations of others, by tradition or pub talk, instead forging their own path to sustainability.

While there are no certainties in life or in farming, they have already achieved a more resilient system, generating a range of income streams, becoming price-makers, not price-takers. All by being creative and brave, starting small and seeing what works – for their land, their family and, of course, for the consumer.

Learn more – social farming

Social farming is about giving people with a range of challenges in life the opportunity to spend time and carry out activities on ordinary working family farms.

The type of activity caters to the individual’s abilities, desires and interests – such as gardening, animal care or bread-making– all undertaken in a healthy, supportive and inclusive environment. Reported benefits include: improved self-esteem, sense of purpose and well-being, better physical health and improved social skills.

Social farms are ordinary working farms – now found in every county in Ireland, they vary in size from one to 700 acres, and include all farming sectors. Participating farmers receive training and ongoing support, as well as remuneration for their time.

Host farmers report a strong sense of personal satisfaction and fulfilment, a new sense of perspective on the farm, and even improved next-generation involvement and interest in the farm.

As ‘green health’ prescriptions by doctors grow more common, social farming may provide new economic and social opportunities for interested farmers.

For more information, visit www.socialfarmingireland.ie.

Top tips

This is a great time of year to collect fruit and nuts from trees on your farm.

While some are great for cooking and/or eating, why not use some for propagation? It’s by far the best and cheapest way to ‘grow your own’ trees and be sure they are of local provenance.

The simplest trees to grow from seed are those grown from nuts, like oak and hazel. Oak is considered the very best tree to support biodiversity.

One tip when collecting acorns is to ‘weed out’ any ‘dud’ acorns by putting them in a bucket of water – the sterile ones usually float, while the fertile ones usually sink!

Then, just get a pot (with drainage holes), fill it with compost and bury the acorn – sideways – roughly a thumbnail deep. You can leave the pot outside in the ‘elements’, but protect it from birds or mice.

For more, visit the Teagasc website.