Rory O’Reilly has always liked the idea of ”cutting out the middle man” and in 2015 he started fattening up some of his heifers on his Loughrea, Co Galway farm, for his own beef.
There was too much beef for just his own household, so he gave some to family and friends. The feedback he received on the taste and quality led him to set up a box scheme and sell his meat directly to customers across Ireland.
“I grew up on this farm. I moved to America when I was 19, but I always knew I was going to come back to the farm,” he says. “I spent 16 years there and met my wife, Sarah, and in 2010 we moved home to Ireland,” says Rory.
After working in the construction industry in America, Rory took over the family farm directly on his return to Ireland.
“Money and whims were good in America but the hours were long and it was a young man’s game. When I came back home my father was in his 70s and at that time all the milkmen on the farm were milkmen who sold at the market. were sold.
“The first few years we were home, we were busy—our youngest child was born (we have four), one of our sons was diagnosed with autism, and we built our own home.
“So it was 2014 when I really got a chance to focus properly on the farm. Until then I had stuck with it.
Rory had 22 cows at the time – Aberdeen Angus, Limousin, Charolais and Belgian Blues – and was selling their weanlings at the mart.
Although the farm was “going well”, Rory felt he had reached a crossroads and needed to make a decision on what he was going to do with the farm long term.
“I used to follow cattle rancher grass farmer magazine and a lot of independent farmers in America contributed to it,” he says. “They had a lot of different ideas on how to take up farming and make a living from it.
“There was a lot of talk about grass-based farming and out of the box schemes and eliminating middlemen and that attracted me.
“I started a couple of thickets of grass for myself.
“We couldn’t eat all the beef ourselves so gave some of it away to family and friends and they loved it and loved the idea of buying grass-fed beef locally.
“The response we got and our interest in producing our own food inspired me to try selling my beef through a box-scheme system.”
Rory says the way he wanted to farm was organically, so when the organic scheme launched in 2015 it was a no brainer for him – he applied straight away.
“I went in without hesitation,” he says. “The conversion was not a major decision and by the time our first organic animal was ready for slaughter, we had the box plan running.
“We knew people were going to be interested but we didn’t know if it would be profitable for us.”
Rory visited other farms that were selling their beef through a box scheme and gathered some great tips and ideas.
“We started posting about our box on social media platforms – we knew Facebook was going to be a great and free marketing tool for us,” he says.
“I found I had a bit of a knack for the marketing side of the business—getting out and talking to people, telling them what we were doing and building a customer base.”
He also received some grant support through the Hen Harrier Project, under which his land was designated to set up a website to sell his beef.
Rory had been bringing his animals to Healy Family Meats to be cut while providing meat for his household, and continued to work with them to create his beef boxes.
“They have all the facilities – an abattoir and butcher facility and they can vacuum pack,” he says. “Plus they’re registered organic.”
By 2018, Lough Mountain Farm was slaughtering one animal every three to four weeks, with Rory selling the meat further before sending his animals to abattoirs.
He has continued to build his customer base and now raises about 15 head of cattle each year for his beef boxes and receives between 12 and 14 boxes from each animal.
“Our income from beef has tripled compared to 2014 and sales of our lamb boxes account for 25 percent of our income. It has made farming possible full-time which I always wanted – I want to be as much as possible for my family was as possible.”
Rory’s cattle are kept outside 12 months of the year and he uses a rotational grazing system to keep the land and animals in good condition.
“At this time of year I leave the slatted shed gate open and leave the silage in there, and the cows stop coming and going,” he says.
“We are on wet ground and we have had lots of inspections and have never had any problems with the condition of the land due to having a rotational grazing system.”
He sends his cattle to slaughter at anywhere between 22 and 36 months of age. They say they all end up on grass and usually kill around 240 kg of carcass weight.
“I do a 10kg beef box which contains 3kg steak, 3kg mince, 1kg stew and two roasts,” he says.
“All meat is packed in 500g bags and there are two steaks per pack. Everything is suitable for freezing.
“Each 10kg box is €155 and then it is €15 extra for delivery by courier. We also make some boxes without steak and they are €120.
“I sell every part of the animal, including the red offal and marrow bones – customers like to use these to make their own stock, which has become quite popular.”
A few years ago, Rory’s also started producing lamb boxes. However, he found that his land was not the most suitable for raising lambs.
“I don’t really have land to feed lambs on – the quality isn’t good enough so I buy lamb from another organic farmer,” he says. “Now I use about three dozen lambs a year.
“Customers can order a whole lamb, which averages around 15/16 kg, or a lamb portion.
“Input costs had skyrocketed last year so I had to increase my prices. Last year I was selling a whole lamb for €235, and I still don’t see any of that extra cost as profit.
“The cost of butchering, packaging, courier service, not to mention diesel and energy, rose hugely last year.”
Most of Lough Mountain Farm’s customers are individual families, Rory says, with the exception of a few restaurants.
Most deliveries are completed by courier service, while Rory does some locally as well.
“We pack the meat in insulated cardboard boxes that are lined with sheep’s wool insulation,” he says.
“Initially I did the packaging from the courier I was using. It was foil insulation but we wanted to be more sustainable so we eventually found a company in England that did paper insulation and now we have sheep’s wool.
“We get cool-packs from Holland which we freeze and put in boxes; This helps the boxes maintain a safe temperature for up to 72 hours.”
Meat is collected by courier from Healy Family Meats and is usually delivered within 24 hours.
“We didn’t really want a freezer on the farm – it’s a big investment and there’s a huge amount of paperwork involved,” says Rory.
“Our produce is seasonal. I only grass feed the stock so from May to December it is all happening here. Orders are mostly done online but some people also call me to place orders.”
Q&A: ‘Do things by the book: you don’t want your business to fall because you took shortcuts in the beginning’
What level of start-up costs did you incur?
The way we modeled the business, we kept the start-up costs to a minimum.
By shipping directly from the butcher to the customer, we avoided the cost of having a freezer on the farm.
The packaging we choose means we don’t need to invest in a freezer van to make deliveries. It was a business that was relatively easy to get off the ground.
Was bank financing available?
I am sure that bank financing is readily available for this type of business, in the same way it is available for most types of agricultural diversification businesses.
But it’s not a path we went down – I have a terrible aversion to getting into debt, I think it’s a really slippery slope.
Was grant aid available?
Grant aid is available for this type of business from leaders and local enterprise offices. We were in the Hen Harrier project and got a grant through that to set up the website.
Do you need to register with any body?
We are registered with District Veterinarians in Galway. We are a food delivery business, so we are inspected annually by district veterinarians and we are subject to on-the-spot inspections.
The district vets were fantastic and helped with everything. If we ran into a roadblock with how we ran the business, they were there to help. They really wanted us to get off the ground and do the work.
They were fantastic for advice and mentorship. We learned about the Leaders Program and LEO through him. Next year the department will take them over.
Is Insurance Necessary for Your Business?
Farm insurance covers what we are doing, we looked into getting limited liability insurance but were advised we didn’t need the insurance policy we already had covered.
What advice would you give to someone like you who is looking to diversify their farm?
Do it when starting work from the book. You are working very hard to build a business and you don’t want it to fail because you took shortcuts in the beginning.
Don’t be afraid to seek help from regulated bodies. There is often a perception that they will put obstacles in your way but we found quite the opposite, they were very helpful.
And finally, set high standards for yourself. Getting clients can be tough in the beginning and keeping them can be even tougher, so make sure you’re doing your best from the start.