Organic farming and a holiday experience aren’t two things you’d immediately pair together; but Coolanowle Country House in Co. Laois does just that.
Bernadine and James Mulhall’s B&B is located right on their working organic farm, and almost all the food on their menu is produced on their own land. The pair has dairy cattle, beef cattle, and even an orchard; they also do their own processing. Some of the organic food available on the Mulhall’s property includes lamb, pork, beef, bacon and chicken.
Although as many self-grown products as possible are used on the menu at Coolanowle Country House, sometimes products are bought in.
“When we need to buy something, we choose from other organic farmers in the local area, within a 25-mile radius,” explains Bernadine.
James Mulhall has been farming since he was 18 years old. He and his brother Pat worked on a mixed farm of about 300 acres between them, and they sought advice on the best way to move forward. The idea of organic farming appealed to both James and Bernadine, and they started the process of converting in the year 2000.
A few years before that, the Mulhalls had set up Coolanowle Country House; the addition of the organic side of things, however, gave everything a boost of sorts.
“The organic food is a draw for people, definitely. People hear that there’s great food here, and it’s so rewarding. Word of mouth spreads and people decide that they want to have dinner here each night during their visit even before they’ve tasted the food.”
When they decided to convert from conventional to organic back in 2000, people around them were sceptical. A Teagasc advisor even scoffed at their plans!
“We were a very commercial farm, and our Teagasc advisor actually looked at us and said ‘Are you for real?’ He didn’t think there was any point in changing really. At the time, farming was being steered by the experts in a different direction,” explains Bernadine.
Back at the start of the 21st Century, it seems Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture, and others were focused on getting Irish farming ramped up to modern day times. Going organic wasn’t a priority, and Bernadine admits they were labelled as a ‘Back to the Future’ farm!
“We were used as a demonstration farm for others interested in converting, and we also took part in farm monitoring with Teagasc, to compare how organic farming was performing compared to conventional farms. It turned out that organic was just as profitable.
“In that case, why would you use a farming method that was no more profitable than the one that’s better for your health and the environment? It was a very different approach to what’s there now. There has absolutely been a huge turn around in attitudes to organic farming,” says Bernadine.
The process itself took some time; Bernadine and James did plenty of research on organics when they started to make the change. They visited farms in England, read up on several books, did online research and carried out the necessary courses. However, a lack of advisory services did make the process more difficult for the Mulhalls.
“In a space of five or six years while we were conventional, we became disillusioned with the way farming was being steered. We had sugar beet, grain, dairy; but we found every year we were getting poorer! After looking into organic farming, we found that our land would lend itself very well to farming too. If you were in a wetter area, you might get rushes and other things growing up through the soil, but our land was very good.”
Right now, the couple’s son is in charge of the drystock aspect of their farm. They have Aberdeen Angus crosses from their Friesian dairy herd, as well as some Herefords. The farm also has 120 milking cows.
Coolanowle farm supplies local farmers’ markets in the Carlow and Kilkenny areas with mainly meat, but they’ve found in recent times that a bigger demand is growing for organic milk.
“We’ve found that there’s a growing demand for raw milk, so we’re looking into getting a new dairy system. We’d like a more sophisticated set-up, with a system that can bottle too.”
Organic milk sales need more help, according to the Mulhalls. Right now, Glenisk is the only place buying organic milk, so that’s what moved farmers in Ireland to band together and form the Little Milk Company.
Coolanowle supplies the Little Milk Company, as do several other organic farms in the country. We’ll have more on those involved in Little Milk in the future, so watch this space!
The rewarding aspect of being thanked for their work is important to those at Coolanowle. They strive to keep a certain level of integrity in their business:
“We try not to let things fluctuate the way factories would from week to week. For those who are supplying us, we have the same price. We want to treat them with respect, because we’re farmers ourselves and we know what it’s like to have changing prices,” explains the Mulhall pair.
Instead of compromising the prices offered to their suppliers and colleagues, they realise that having a higher price on food isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“People are prepared to pay a small premium for our food, because they appreciate that it’s from good organic products.”
They admit that it can be tough working as farmers these days.
“Weather is always something you have to consider, but we’ve been very lucky in recent years. Dairy is very labour intensive as well, and you really need a lot of dedication and commitment, as it’s constant work.”
The accommodation side of the business is doing well at the moment, and their alternative approach to Hen nights, weddings, and functions has helped their reputation. Visitors can get involved with the farm and see where their food is coming from.
They also can choose tailor-made packages that suit the event they’re looking for. The main function room is in keeping with the agricultural theme; it’s actually a converted old barn. (Guests even get some homemade scones on arrival!)
For Bernadine and James Mulhall of Coolanowle Country House, the plan for the future is simple.
“We’ll keep doing what we do, as best as we can.”
Check out the Coolanowle Country House here. If you’re an organic farmer, get in contact and you could be featured!