Catherine O’Grady Powers grew up on one of the largest sheep farms in the country, but left it all behind for the city lights.
fter flying high in the United States, she decided to return to the family farm in Glen Keen, Louisburgh, Co Mayo with her husband Jim.
They now showcase all that their history-steeped working farm has to offer welcoming visitors from all over the world.
“Farm life has always been special, but I didn’t realize how special until I moved,” says Catherine, who also lived in the UK before moving to Ireland in 2000.
“I worked in Washington DC and had a nice job and life with my husband Jim, who worked as a pilot.
“My father and my uncles were farmers here, but they were looking for a step back. I always felt a great sense of protection for our family farm and wanted to see it continue to thrive.
“So we made the decision to move to Ireland and that Jim would travel between here and the States for work.”
The couple had a “transatlantic marriage” for some time along with their work commitments.
“I’ve always missed home, and where I grew up had so much to offer,” she says.
Glen Keen’s sprawling estate, spanning over 5,500 acres and home to 650 sheep, required a lot of work when Catherine took over.
“There were hundreds of acres of low land that needed to be fenced off and there was a lot of other work to do, so it required a substantial investment,” she says.
In 2004 the couple sat down and assessed how much money and time they had invested in the farm and decided they needed to find another path to sustainability.
“We looked at the financial investment we had made and the fact that we hadn’t seen a return yet,” says Catherine.
“We thought about ways to diversify the farm, which made me think back to my childhood. People regularly stopped to watch while we herded the sheep and we often saw tourists visiting the area.
“The area is steeped in history and we knew this place was special.”
Glen Keen Farm is steeped in Irish history, with Catherine’s family having been sharecroppers of the land since the 1600s.
The site is home to two circular forts and still houses the remains of a group of farm huts from the 1800s, as well as ancient cemeteries.
So the couple decided to get into the agritourism business and use their working sheep farm in a different way.
“There was a lack of jobs in the area and we thought a tourism business would benefit more people than us,” says Catherine.
“There are so many talented artisans, musicians and dancers here, but no outlets for them.”
The diversification process was long and required additional investment and a lot of planning, but Catherine gained confidence in her idea when she was approved for LEADER funding through the South West Development Company.
“We told the Development Company about our idea to showcase our working farm in different ways,” she says.
“We told them we wanted to offer traditional sheepdog herding experiences, grass cutting experiences, guided farm tours, craft workshops and much more.
“We wanted to build a craft shop to also sell local handmade products.
“They were very supportive, as was Mayo County Council.”
Over the next few years, the couple focused on raising capital and securing planning permission for a new agritourism building on the farm.
In 2012, Catherine began marketing the farming business at trade shows.
“I knew that if we wanted to attract an international clientele, we had to start marketing our business even before it was fully developed,” she says.
“So we reached out to Fáilte Ireland and our LEO to get the ball rolling.”
In 2014, after a long road of construction, training and marketing, Catherine and Jim opened their farm to the public for the first time, after securing a tourist bus contract with CIE.
The couple have started offering a range of traditional Irish experiences to their visitors.
“Our first experience has always been herding sheepdogs,” Catherine explains. “This is where visitors learn all about the Border Collie breed, such as its history, diet and whistle command training. Then they can see the dogs in action, responding to their commands.
“Jim and I do the sheepdog demonstrations along with two local farmers, Michael Hastings and George Hughes, who then explain their farming systems to visitors.
“It’s ideal for international visitors who don’t come from agricultural backgrounds.”
Sheep farmer and local woolmaker June Bourke offers a demonstration of traditional wool spinning, showing visitors how to take raw wool and turn it into yarn before spinning it to create a product.
Catherine and Jim also got special permission from the National Parks and Wildlife Service to provide a lawn cutting experience.
“This is a special conservation area where grass cutting is no longer allowed,” explains Catherine.
“Some of the most pristine and untouched bogs in the West are found here, so we requested special permission to demonstrate the traditional method of cutting the turf in conjunction with our guided tour of historic sites in the field, and it has been granted.”
Other experiences offered on Glen Keen Farm include lessons in how to make traditional Irish coffee, Irish song and dance with local musicians Joe Ford and Brendan Keegan, and scone-making lessons.
The couple’s 650 mountain sheep do not play a big role.
“The sheep mostly live on the mountains and we only bring them down five times a year for certain events like herding and scanning,” says Catherine.
“We have always kept the Scottish breed, which are horned and black-faced sheep. They are bred specifically to thrive in mountainous and upland environments.
“The heather and coarse vegetation in the mountains acts as a natural antiseptic for their feet, and we often find that when we take them to low ground we end up having problems such as foot rot.
“We started crossing them with a Texel ram a few years ago, resulting in some nice Hill-Tex lambs. They are heavier than black-faced lambs and more profitable too.
Keeping an eye on the entire herd, which has access to 10,000 acres of common land, can be difficult. Catherine has therefore recently invested in new sheep tracking software.
“It’s a location tracker that works a bit like a microchip,” she says. “The number corresponds to the ear tag of the sheep and can be scanned.
“It works through a downloadable app that lets you see where your sheep is at any time.
“We are very interested in sheep location tracking and hope to try other new apps and software to find the one that works best for us.
“There’s a lot of work going on at universities on farm animal tracking and that’s something we’d like to bring to our farm as a test bed.”
When Covid disrupted the tourism sector, Catherine and Jim tried a new export business where they send traditional Irish produce to China and other parts of Asia.
“We got help from Enterprise Ireland, the GMIT New Frontiers program and the Mayo Local Enterprise Office. We are starting with Irish whiskey,” Catherine explains.
Agricultural Diversification: Catherine O’Grady Powers
What level of start-up costs did you incur when setting up the business?
We have made a substantial investment in the farm and the business. It was gradual, but we spent a lot of time and money on it.
Were there grants available?
Yes, we obtained a grant from LEADER for the construction of our reception building.
It was invaluable – we couldn’t have built it without the grant.
How long did it take to launch the business?
Winning touring contracts and making a name for yourself as an international trade supplier takes at least three years.
Gaining the trust of tour operators takes time so it didn’t happen overnight for us.
Did you find any state organizations or agencies helpful?
LEADER was amazing with the financial help and Mayo LEO was fantastic with all the advice.
Mayo LEO provided us with social media marketing training as well as great mentorship.
I cannot recommend them highly enough.
We have also obtained a micro-exporter grant to participate in international fairs.
Failté Ireland has also been very helpful with workshops and support, as has Tourism Ireland Trade Missions Abroad.
Have you applied for a building permit?
Yes. Mayo County Council has been a fantastic help in this regard. We took advantage of their free planning clinics, which we found invaluable.
We saved a lot of money using them and got some great information.
There is an abundance of free information if you search for it.