Making the most of now
IF there is one thing that Paul McCarthy has learned in recent times it is that those who are willing to diversify and try something new are the people who are carving a successful niche for themselves in rural enterprise.
Ballintubber native McCarthy (36) is a Rural Business Specialist with Teagasc and has recently become involved in creating and presenting on RTÉ’s new rural entrepreneurial series Higher Ground.
The series focuses on the progress of eight innovative business ideas from different parts of rural Ireland with McCarthy and co-presenter Peter Young acting as mentors.
All ideas are novel and it is this need for lateral thinking that is key in current times, he argues.
With commodity prices so low, farmers have really felt the squeeze and with banks currently so circumspect about lending, it means planning, innovation and an ability to adapt make all the difference.
But trying to move farmers away from the old way of thinking is the main problem. Like a lot of people in Ireland, the typical farmer put a lot of store in bricks and mortar rather than assessing if there are more creative ways to invest.
“The most common thing is Paddy gets out the digger and wants to go digging and building without really thinking about what is he going to make money from,” explains McCarthy.
“When people got grant-aid they spent a lot of money on slatted houses and new sheds without maybe questioning the viability of the business.
“In the past people wrote business plans only to draw down money and get grant-aid. What we are trying to tell people is that the plan is more important for yourself, that you know what the targets are. Every step of the way is nailed down and you know where you are going.”
Some of the innovative ideas highlighted on Higher Ground include a lady from Cork making cake toppings from her kitchen and two brothers in Roscommon selling beef directly from their farm.
The Roscommon brothers brings McCarthy onto discussing about direct selling, something he feels would be very successful in Ireland at the moment.
“The big message I am trying to say to farmers who are selling food is that people are willing to change their habits in the recession. They are looking at value and they are more inclined to go local. Buying food directly from the farmer is a real runner. If I was to send out one strong message it is that people should look to buy direct from a farmer. You are cutting costs and you know where your food is coming from.”
For farmers creativity and originality are key. McCarthy talks about the rural landowner who might open a B&B only to see their neighbour follow suit. Where there might have been room for one of them to thrive, two of them in existence side by side could drive both under.
“What we are doing on Higher Ground is showing people thinking outside the box all across Ireland. Show people that you can successfully diversify. There are challenges but it can be done. Motivating people is a big part of it. Showing people that it can be done, it will take a lot of toil and a lot of belief and confidence but it can work.”
And we return to the change in mindset needed. Paul McCarthy takes calls from people all over the country looking to diversify their farm enterprise and asking for his expert advice. But the farmer will often worry only about getting things up and running rather than concern themselves with some very important nuances.
One dairy farmer said he wanted to go making cheddar cheese and McCarthy started teasing out a few things with him. Is there a market for the cheddar? How much will you have to sell to break even? “Jesus I didn’t think of any of that,” was the reply.
“And that is the crux of it,” McCarthy explains. “People just think of the bricks and mortar element of things. They never think about branding or where the gap is in the market, for instance with this cheddar. They need to decide if cheddar is the right cheese to be doing. I would say to someone if they were looking for a food idea to go to the Speciality Food Fair in the Olympia in London. You can fly over and back in one day. There are 700 food producers there and you’ll get loads of ideas. All you need is one of those ideas to bring it back home.
“Spend money on that kind of thing. But the typical farmer is more comfortable going into Roadstone for a trailer-load of blocks and cement than going out and researching the market and the key is to change that kind of thinking.”