Catherina Cunnane, That’s Farming editor, in conversation with Caitriona Cullen of Cullen Nurseries, in this week’s Farmer Focus segment.
Caitriona provides an insight into her journey over the past decade, buying an initial 11-acres, their involvement in the horticultural field, venturing into beef cattle, taking a step back from her career as a biochemist and the Covid-19 pandemic’s positive impacts on their business.
“We are Robert and Caitriona Cullen of Cullen Nurseries, based in Hacketstown, Co. Carlow.
We are both actively involved in the running of the family business, Cullen Nurseries. Robert is solely responsible for the farm’s agricultural aspect.
He is from Hacketstown and does not hail from a farming background. On the other hand, I was reared with sheep and spent years standing in the wrong gap; it is always the wrong gap with sheep!
Robert is a horticulturist by trade, whereas I am a biochemist who spent ten years as a quality manager in a local abattoir.
I could not escape the farmers! Robert has been interested in farming from a very young age.
At one point in the late 1980s, he and his brother Damien, (now a well-established agricultural contractor), were farming pet lambs in the back yard of their terraced house in Hacketstown.
They did not make money but loved the process. They were bound for the agricultural life from a very young age.
After studying horticulture in Multyfarnham, Robert began working for himself as a landscape gardener. He put all his farming thoughts on hold!
11-acres and building Cullen Nurseries
We met in 2008, and in 2009, we were presented with an opportunity to buy 11-acres of land to set down roots and begin building our home. At the time, we were interested in purchasing the land solely for nursery purposes.
Robert had been renting land for growing trees and hedging to supply into the gardens he was building and landscaping. We began to build the nursery, extending year on year.
In early 2013, we purchased three heifers and began our farming career. We bought in cattle in March, kept them on grass over the summer and fattened them over the winter for the factory.
The cattle graded well, and Robert fell in love with the process. The herd grew yearly, from three heifers in 2013 up to 20 bullocks after seven years. In 2020, we ventured into bullocks for the first time.
Over the years, we extended the housing to accommodate the increase in the herd. We began renting additional land to satisfy the feed demand.
In late 2020, we were presented with the opportunity to purchase the land we were renting. We liquidated half the herd to raise funds to get the purchase across the line.
We bought an additional 8-acres, 2 of which are currently under nursery, with the remaining 6-acres for cattle pasture.
Combining horticulture and agriculture
So, we have diversified from horticulture into agriculture and are combining both to generate an income for our young family.
Our home farm is in Hacketstown, Co. Carlow. We have 19-acres in total.
It is divided in approximately half to furnish the needs of the horticultural and agricultural elements of the business.
We are full-time in the nursery and part-time farming. We run a native tree and hedging nursery with 8-acres of land under crop.
Furthermore, we use the remaining 10-acres for farming purposes and an acre for the family home.
DAFM-approved and target market
Cullen Nurseries specialise in native trees and hedging. The farming community would be our biggest market.
We are a Department of Agriculture-approved nursery, subject to regular random inspection by DAFM officials.
Department of Agriculture schemes such as GLAS, REPS and AEOS, encouraged farmers to plant.
It is now, a few years into the maturity of the plants, that the farmers are seeing the real environmental benefits of these schemes.
We are still incredibly busy supplying to this demographic. The farming communities of the west of Ireland would be a large market for Cullen Nurseries.
Our nationwide delivery service has taken us from the Sheep’s Head peninsula in Cork right up to the shores of Strangford Lough.
Native plants and trees
A large portion of our plants are grown as bare-root plants available from November through to March in the bare root planting season.
We have a range of native plants, such as Whitethorn, Spindle, Guelder Rose, Crab, Beech, and also non-native species such as Beech and laurel hedging, all available from 2ft whips.
Also, we grow and supply native trees, such as Oak, Red Oak, Wild Cherry, Silver Birch, Alder, Mountain Ash and Lime trees, in a range of sizes from 2ft whips up to 8ft trees.
Native trees and hedging plants are the plants that will contribute the most to our natural ecosystems.
We have, in recent years, seen a massive shift to going the extra step of planting flowering and fruiting hedging species such as the Guelder Rose, Hazel, Spindle and Holly plants into stock-proof hedges.
These pollinator-friendly plants are so vital for introducing, stabilising, and encouraging biodiversity in an area.
We have even seen this shift outside of the farming community in new builds and garden renovations.
Now more than ever, people are planting for the environment, biodiversity, and the future.
There are still the old reliables that you can plant in all gardens and farms. A single oak tree can support over 500 life forms, from birds, bees, insects, and caterpillars right through to mosses, lichens, and fungi.
Calendar of events
Although the selling and planting of most of our plants are seasonal and done in the bare root season from November to March, the work involved in running the nursery is all-year-round.
As soon as the selling season is complete in March, we begin the process of ‘lining in’ and preparing for the next season’s crop.
Through the rest of the budding, summer and autumn, there is the physical work of weeding, staking, pruning, disease prevention and crop management.
As we offer a nationwide delivery service, we are on the road delivering all-year-round.
Covid, although very challenging, overall, has affected our business positively.
It certainly highlighted a lot of weaknesses in our business. I took a step back from my career before Covid to focus on ‘helping out with the books’ and our young family.
Those first few weeks after the government announced lockdown was an incredibly tense and stressful time.
Our family’s income was dependent solely on Cullen Nurseries. Our two full-time staff are married to healthcare heroes, who were on the frontline, leaving our employees at home to mind children and home-school.
A few days after the government announced lockdown, it provided clarity, and our business was able to trade and deliver as we were selling a crop.
The lockdown, an increase in online shopping and an explosion in demand for gardening products highlighted a gaping hole in our business, our lack of a digital presence and the fact that our business model served an income for only six months of the year.
We quickly took ourselves online and began reaching even more new markets and clients all over the country.
Also, we adapted quickly and made use of underutilised existing infrastructure, polytunnels and vehicles for delivering.
We began selling a potted hedging range to the homeowner ‘safe at home’ who was falling in love with the garden all over again.
The garden was becoming an important cornerstone in so many people’s mental and physical health. We had to work quickly and effectively to tap into that new market.
Covid also brought me further into the business due to the simple fact that nobody else was available. I quickly learned, under Robert’s guidance, all about the plants and process of the nursery.
Robert is still responsible for the technical elements of the business, sharing his 25 years of experience with our loyal customer base.
He looks after the physical elements of the business, from planning to stock rotation and crop management.
I look after marketing and the administrative duties and in recent months, even the deliveries.
Our staff are now back to work full time, and we have even expanded our staff numbers and have an additional part-time worker all-year-round. Also, we will employ a delivery driver for the coming bare root season.
The nursery is open by appointment only as we are often on the road delivering our produce.
Our short-term plans are to erect additional polytunnels and houses to expand our potted hedging range, continue to enhance and improve our digital presence, and extend our offering of ornamental trees to our customers and clients.
Our long-term objective is to increase the herd back to 15; we feel this is manageable considering our commitments to the nursery.
We intend to, over time, increase the acreage under trees and hedging. Also, we will have to rent additional land in the future to do both the nursery and the livestock.
Our agricultural activities are Bord Bia Quality Assured. We are very proud of the product and high standard of beef we produce.
Taking a step back from a career
Looking back over the last few years, we are quite amazed by how quickly the years have gone.
We have worked hard, and when faced with adversity, we have been able to pull through.
We do not have too many regrets; I regret allowing the fear of the unknown stop me from taking a step back from my career when the children were a little younger.
Robert had suggested it a few years previously. However, I was reluctant to give up the career I had spent years building.
Thankfully, it was a great decision in the end, but it was a significant change and adjustment at the time.
Future of farming in Ireland
Regarding the future of farming in Ireland, the high standard of food the Irish farmer produces means there will always be a global demand for our produce and profession.
I think Covid highlighted the vital role farmers play in our everyday lives in terms of food production, even for those people most distanced from the industry.
We are continually encouraged by the recognition of female farmers in today’s social media-driven environment.
It is great to see so many female farmers going into the industry.
For farming in general, there are indeed challenging times ahead. However, for this farmer, it is a love of the profession and the process rather than the pay check that keeps us here,” she concluded.
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