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Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 19:40 GMT 20:40 UK
Farmers change to survive in NI
By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News, Northern Ireland

BMG motor school
The McGirr dairy farm provides just enough work for one

Farming is still an important sector for Northern Ireland's economy. In the first of a series of reports from the province, BBC News examines how the business of farming has been changing.

On the McGirr dairy farm, in County Fermanagh, it's not unusual to see motorbike riders rounding up the cattle.

Brian and Aideen McGirr are one of a growing breed of Northern Ireland's traditional farmers who are choosing to run a business from the family plot.

Increasingly farmers are unable to support more than one employee, with many owners actually choosing to go part-time to bring in extra cash.

In an effort to pay their own way, the McGirrs set up the BMG motorcycle training school.

"My dad has 22 cows, he's self-sufficient. Whereas we have a son who depends on us and a mortgage, we need more of an income," Mr McGirr says.

Low returns

Farmers are battling against rising costs and low returns on small farms that average 20 hectares in size, says Alex Cromie, Enniskillen's Rural Connect advisor for the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development.

But, he says, farmers are unwilling to cash in on their holdings.

"Irish people do not sell land. Farming is a tradition. Farmers here tend to be land rich but asset poor," says Mr Cromie.

To be a successful diversified farm you have to find your niche

"The only options available to farming families are to create a bigger, more efficient business to get better returns. Otherwise they can go part-time, go for alternative employment or diversify."

Through DARD's Rural Connect office potential businesses are put in touch with where to find funding for their plans, from those available such as Leader and Peace funding.

In the early days many of the region's farmers went into tourism, setting up B&Bs or holiday cottages, but to get ahead the experts agree you have to specialise or be something completely unique.

As a result, across Northern Ireland's countryside there is now a farm offering Portaloos, another building model farms and one training donkeys - apparently donkeys are very popular for racing at local fetes or events.

'Dream come true'

One farm that's found a very different income is in Sion Mills, Country Tyrone.

Heading up the drive you may be able to hear the squeal of pigs, or even catch the whiff of manure.

Well Being Spa
Denise has pumped 350,000 into expanding her spa business

Head into the Well Being Spa, however, and you are in a different world - literally.

Owner Denise Adams has travelled the globe seeking out new and unique treatments and you can experience the fruits of her travels here - spending the morning in an Egyptian milk bath, lunch experiencing a Hawaiian massage and the evening in a Moroccan mud bath.

Set up in a spare property on her husband's pig farm Denise Adams says her spa is a "dream come true".

Even so, it has not come cheap.

Number of farms - 27,064 , of which 76% are classed as 'very small'
Dairy - 38,000
Cattle &Sheep (LFA) - 18,200
Cattle & Sheep (lowland) - 19,600
Mixed - 22,100
General cropping - 30,000
Cereals - 15,700
All types - 26,000
*Source: DARD NI figures 2004/5

From a start of investing 1,000 in doing up a single room in the old house, she's now invested almost 350,000 - with a little help from a 20,000 Leader+ grant - in expanding the site and offering pampering treatments for men and women alike.

She even boasts Northern Ireland's first "rasual chamber" - a place where guests are treated to steam and mud packs as they relax ahead of their main treatments.

"The business grew by world of mouth, locally and South of the Border, and now I've had interest from places like Australia, Hong Kong and Boston," Denise says.

"Turnover's up 89% over the year and business is so good there's now 14 people working here full time, it used to be eight."

But not all businesses are so spectacular - although they are still money spinners for the family farm.

Rock solid investment

After Trevor Morrows dairy herd was wiped out by disease he ditched farming completely - only his mother continues to breed horses as a hobby.

Nowadays, using stones sourced from the land he owns, Trevor makes fireplaces, signs and paving.

Trevor Morrow
Trevor's decision to move into rock cutting is paying dividends

"My first grant was about 20,000 - 50% of a 40,000 business," he says.

"I first started just building wee walls, now its walls, fireplaces, interiors and skirting. Every year its getting busier - we're always behind about a month or two.

"Its hard to say how many customers we have, but the business is up 20% each year."

Luxury market

One real success story looks to be Tully Meadows - where they've remained in the farming business and have really taken to heart the idea of a niche or specialist product.

Gareth Grey and his siblings flew in the face of sound advice when they set up their luxury ice cream venture.

We've had interest from Sainsbury's, Selfridges and Harrods but our strategy is much stricter than that
Gareth Grey, Tully Meadows

In a bid to tackle declining milk prices over the past few years - prices per litre had halved from 30p to 15p while costs had doubled - his brother Marcus had been looking into buying a herd of Jersey cows.

The idea was that the familiar brown cows would be smaller and be cheaper to keep, while the milk they produced would be of a better quality and so could be sold for more.

"But the experts advised us strongly against bringing the cows in from Denmark," Gareth says.

"We were told there was too much risk, they wouldn't survive that they couldn't cope with conditions here.

"But something had to happen so Marcus brought the cows over. People thought we were nuts, and locals were coming just to look at these strange cows in the field."

New focus

Soon Marcus decided to swap from supplying milk to specialising in a luxury product and soon the family decided to make their own luxury ice cream.

Tully Meadows HQ
Tully Meadows is very much a hands on operation at the moment

Gareth returned from England where he'd been studying computer science and soon took over the sales side, and the operation still remains a tight family-knit one involving Marcus and brother-in-law Steve.

With a loan from HSBC they converted a row of farm buildings themselves - and the cows proved a great draw luring in customers to their on-site shop, while the group also supplied local hotels and restaurants.

Later, the group also managed to secure further funding from the Leader + programme.

Now the business has a new, cooler brand name and look - Tickety-Moo - and aims to spread beyond the fields of Tully Meadows.

"We're looking at a distribution network for our pre-pack ice cream in the North and South of Ireland and the [rest of the] UK," Gareth adds.

"We've had interest from Sainsbury's, Selfridges and Harrods, but our strategy is much stricter than that.

"We want to remain exclusive, we want an even distribution to privately-owned delis and stores in Northern Ireland and the South, and we're aiming to hit the mainland of Great Britain in two years time."

It seems that diversification and a bit of imagination may yet yield large benefits for Northern Ireland's farmers.

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