Ger and Paula Lalor have always kept their diverse farm since moving there in 1982. Almost forty years later, Ballybryan Farm in Rhode, Co Offaly is a thriving tillage and turkey business, with the added value of ‘a new apple juice business.
I grew up on a farm, so farming has always been second nature to me, ”says Ger. “When we moved here we started with a mix of cattle, sheep and tillage. Over the years we have focused on tillage, growing winter crops to contract.
The farm he and Paula bought had sheds, which made cattle and sheep a good place to start. After a few years, however, they decided to turn things around and face the unknown.
“We just found out that cattle and sheep weren’t right for us and we were more interested in adding value to the crops we were growing,” says Ger. “So we sold the cattle and the sheep.
“The sheds were then left empty over the winter and we wanted to find a way to use them, so the turkeys seemed like a good avenue.”
Ger started with 50 bronze turkeys and no poultry farming experience.
“It was a learning-as-you-go situation,” he says. “But we weren’t long to learn.”
Ger gets his turkeys at the end of August at the age of six weeks. He keeps them for up to 22 weeks, before processing them on his farm, where they are collected in the days leading up to Christmas.
Ger says that by branching out into turkeys, he also found a way to add value to his crops.
“We feed the turkeys whole wheat straight from our farm, which is ideal for them. We also buy them a mixed ration that is packed with vitamins and minerals.
In 2010, Ger planted an apple orchard under which turkeys could graze, “under the original REPS diet”.
“We planted around 15 varieties of Irish Heritage apples and after a few years they were producing a huge harvest,” he says.
The orchard soon produced many more apples than the turkeys could eat.
“We thought about ways to use the excess apples and decided to try making our own pure apple juice,” says Ger.
Rosemarie, one of Ger and Paula’s daughters, who lives next to the farm, got on board.
“We sent a load of our apples to being in a hurry, and we realized we had enough to make 1,200 bottles, ”says Rosemarie. “We couldn’t believe it.”
For the first year, Rosemarie sold apple juice from the farm at Christmas to customers who came to pick up their turkeys.
“Everyone loved it. We got a great response from everyone who tried it, which gave me the confidence to go further, ”she says.
She approached various independent retailers.
“Bergin’s, our local butcher, was the first to accept our product and we will be forever grateful to him,” she says.
Seven years later, Ballybryan Farm now produces 6,000 bottles of apple juice per year, supplying more than 20 outlets.
Rosemarie says the secret to their success lies in the quality and versatility of the apples.
“Dad now grows 20 varieties of heirloom apples, some of which are cooking apples and others are eating apples,” she says. “The combination of varieties gives a sweet and refreshing taste.
“The fact that some apples eat apples means that we never need to add sugar, so our juice is 100 pc pure.”
The juice making process is simple and traditional.
“We send the apples to Apple Farm in Tipperary where they are pressed and the pulp is sieved. The juice is then bottled and labeled using the labels we provide them, ”says Rosemarie.
“It’s a great system that allows us to juice our farm apples without the added cost of building and installing a processing facility here.”
Rosemarie says the apples that are best suited for juice making are the ones that would otherwise have no market.
“We would definitely have a hard time selling the nicer apples because of how they look,” she explains. “The tastiest, juiciest apples look less appealing.
“For example, there is a variety called Sam Young which is a horrible looking apple but it tastes amazing. There is another one called Sheep’s Snout which is a long shaped apple that would not visually appeal to the customer, but again this is one of the best for juice making.
Rosemarie says joining the Supervalu Food Academy allowed her to benefit from brand design advice and further develop the brand.
“We came up with a new logo that sets us apart from our competitors. It’s a very traditional product and we wanted our logo to reflect that, ”she says.
Rosemarie makes all the deliveries herself, which she keeps within an hour’s drive.
“In our third year of activity, we produced 8,000 bottles. It was too much to handle with my daily quantity surveyor job, so we now stick to making 6,000 bottles a year and supplying retailers within an hour of our farm, ”she says.
“That way I can make sure I can do all the deliveries myself, keeping the business personal. ”
The apples are all hand picked and the bargains still feed Ger’s 650 bronze turkeys that graze freely under the orchard.
“The orchard occupies three hectares. Apples have been an ideal supplement to the turkey diet and have been a great way to further diversify our farm, ”says Ger.
Q&A: “When we started to make apple juice, we already had a clientele made up of turkeys”
What level of start-up costs did you incur to start your business?
We had no start-up costs but later built cold rooms for the turkeys and apples.
How long did it take to start the business?
The turkeys took off quite quickly at the start and since we started with just 50 we didn’t have too much pressure at the start.
When we first started making apple juice, we already had a clientele of turkeys – for the first year we sold to clients who came to pick up their turkeys at Christmas.
Word of mouth helped tremendously and it didn’t take long to get the apple juice business off the ground.
Was financing readily available from banks?
There are many types of business start-up loans for those who want to start their own farming business, but this was not an avenue we explored.
We financed the companies with our own savings.
Are there any grants available?
We got financial help from the REPS program to plant our orchard, but that’s it.
Did you find any support organizations or agencies particularly useful?
The Supervalu Food Academy has been fantastic for us. It really helped us market our product. It’s a great program to participate in because of the connections you make and the advice you get.
Do you need a specific license or do you need to register with relevant organizations?
We are registered with the Department of Agriculture for turkeys and apple juice.
We are also subject to inspections by the Food Safety Authority at all times.
Was insurance compulsory?
Yes, liability insurance is essential for anyone selling a product directly to the public.