Is this the most innovative farm in Ireland? If not, it’s undoubtedly one of the most adventurous.
Over 30 years ago, Pat and Miriam Mulcahy purchased Ballinwillin House, a historic building with 14 acres of land, located close to the town of Mitchelstown in Co. Cork. Over time, Ballinwillin has expanded to become a specialist breeder of organic deer, wild boar and goats. It’s a tale of how a farming family, with limited land resources, pioneered and developed a unique and award-winning artisan food and agritourism business.
“The reintroduction of wild boar to Ireland is something we are quite proud of and passionate about.”
We started off with a dry stock enterprise at Ballinwillin in 1985. I had a real passion to do something different with the land, and after the first year, we sold off the cattle and began sourcing and importing deer from abroad. The reintroduction of wild boar to Ireland is also something we are quite proud of and passionate about. In essence, we had succeeded, in bringing together on our farm, the first two species of animals, originally consumed as food by our ancestors. We are also unique as we are the only organic deer and wild boar farm – across both Britain and Ireland.
Deer and wild boar farming
We went around the world researching deer carcase sizes. We initially bought deer in England and Scotland, but the carcase sizes were too small to be commercially viable. We then travelled to New Zealand and discovered that they had sourced all their deer in Hungary – and that’s what took us to Hungary. The deer we sourced in Hungary in 1985 were the breeding stock for the herd of Hungarian Red deer that we have today on our farm at Ballinwillin. In 1993 we also sourced a herd of wild boar from our contacts within Hungary. From our early research, it was suggested that deer and wild boar meat should find a market in the British Isles.
Knowledge and skills
We learned bit by bit and by direct experience as knowledge of deer and wild boar farming was limited in agricultural circles at that time in Ireland. Every design and handling facility; everything we have made; was made through trial and error. It’s also only recently that we built our EU-licenced packaging plant, down in the farmyard; it’s unique for a farmer to have a packaging plant, on his farm and I do the butchering myself. Growing up in Limerick my father did butchery at home; my mother made puddings; we were brought up that way. We have since gone on to produce a range of smoked venison and wild boar charcuterie from our farm.
“We used to go to supermarkets and do tastings, and you’d give it to people, and they’d say ‘that’s lovely lamb’.”
Both deer and wild boar took a long time before we could convince Irish people to start eating it. We had to package it properly and present and market it to restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. We had wild boar on the farm for ten years before we got paid for one kilo of meat. We began by giving out free samples and eating the product ourselves. In the early days it was the same with venison, we used to go to supermarkets and do tastings, and you’d give it to people, and they’d say ‘that’s lovely lamb’. However, consumer prejudices are changing as people travel more widely and become more sophisticated in their taste.
“We started selling online about eight years ago. At the start, it was slow, but it now makes up about 20% of sales.”
Routes to market
Hotels and restaurants are now our main customers. Some of these restaurants, I have been dealing with for over 30 years, so allegiance to customers is very important for us. We supply our meat to a range of Michelin-starred and premium restaurants across Ireland and in London. We also started selling online about eight years ago. At the start, it was slow, but it now makes up about 20% of sales which is important as it’s good to have a spread of markets. Online enables us to reach into the lucrative London market on a very regular basis. Orders arrive in the morning and are ready for dispatch around 2 p.m. – and it’s also quite a good earner for the farm. In the last few months, we have made our website mobile-enabled which facilitates the ever-growing number of customers, who use their mobile, to order online.
“We have a wine cellar on site, stocked with wines produced from our vineyard in Hungary.”
Butchery is a very simple skill, but it helps to have a feel for it. The chefs I deal with every day all have differing requirements, and I butcher or cut the meat uniquely for them. If you talk to chefs, you can guide them with regards to proper portion control on a kilo of meat and ultimately restaurant profitability.
“We were awarded the ‘Best Irish Guesthouse Breakfast 2017’ by Georgina Campbell, in conjunction with Failte Ireland.”
Other revenue streams
The B&B is also an important part of the business, along with the varied food functions that we hold at Ballinwillin. We also offer evening meals by appointment and have a wine cellar on site, stocked with wines produced from our own vineyard in Hungary. This was set up, in the 1980s when it was still under communist rule.
In the B&B, we receive guests from all over the world, and the breakfast table is quite international in the mornings. A lot of people would stay with us for the quality of our breakfasts. We are very orientated towards the quality of food and quality towards customers; no matter how busy we will sit down and talk to them; ask them about their life – it’s a fun and lively table at breakfast.
“One of the proudest things for me is to have been able to rear a family on what has been a very innovative farming adventure.”
This year we were awarded the ‘Best Irish Guesthouse Breakfast 2017’ by Georgina Campbell, in conjunction with Failte Ireland. We have also won many ‘Great Taste’ awards over the years and last year were delighted to receive a Cork Business award.
Achievements and experiences
We employ 13 people between full and part-time, and one of the proudest things for me is to have been able to rear a family on what has been a very innovative farming adventure. Over the years we have had many challenges, but we always kept the head down and tried not to let anything stop us. Along the way, we have met great people and developed excellent relationships over the years, and if I had to sum up what we gained from all these experiences – the word would have to be ‘enjoyment’.
Interview by Brendan Byrne.