That’s Farming speaks to Fynn Hopper of Heathbank Farm in this week’s Farmer Focus series. He discusses his move to the Emerald Isle, setting up a smallholding, selecting direct and a desire to become a full-time farmer.
Fynn Hopper (32) farms with his partner Holly and three children, Kimball, Noomi and Una, on Kilronan Mountain overlooking the Arigna valley and Lough Allen.
The family moved to Co. Roscommon, Ireland, two years ago from inner city Hull, England, to buy a smallholding with 7-acres of marginal land and commonage.
Fynn, a mental health nurse, had limited farming experience other than growing vegetables on allotments, community gardens and social and therapeutic projects.
He spent summers working with sheep in Spain, milking goats in Israel and experienced working with livestock in a Camphill community in Scotland but never farmed in his own right.
He jumped in at the deep end, inheriting a herd of hefted sheep and goats from the previous owners of Heathbank Farm.
Moreover, he admits he never really intended to become a farmer but has always dreamed of living on a smallholding growing his own food, producing his own energy and living a simple life in the back of beyond.
Two years on, Fynn is studying farming with Teagasc, is leasing 50-acres of good farmland – which is under organic conversion with the Organic Trust – and has developed sheep, cattle, pig, goat and poultry enterprises.
He told That’s Farming:
“I am currently producing grass-fed lamb, beef and goat meat. My pigs are raised outdoors, my goat milk is unprocessed, and my eggs are free-range.”
“My main products are 10kg lamb, beef and pork boxes which are couriered nationwide using biodegradable woolcool insulated boxes – Milk, eggs, and individual cuts of meat are also available from the farm gate.”
Besides, Fynn runs a small flock of Mayo Mountain Blackface ewes and crosses them with a Suffolk ram to produce progeny for his lamb boxes.
He buys in Belted and Black Galloway weanlings, which he finishes for his beef boxes and purchases mainly Tamworth X Duroc piglets to finish for his Pork boxes.
He runs a small herd of Saneen, Alpine and Anglo Nubian goats which he crosses with a Boer buck to produce kids for his goat boxes and raw milk for sale.
Last but not least, he keeps a small flock of Rhode Island Red and Black Rock chickens for his free-range egg enterprise.
He explained: “A typical day starts with milking the goats before walking them up onto the mountain commonage to graze.”
“After filtering the milk and bottling it up, I feed my flock of hens, collect the eggs, and I box them up in egg cartons.”
“Once everything is in order on the home farm, I head down to the out farm (a 10-minute journey) to check on the stock, feed the pigs and check that the electric fences are all working.”
“Last but not least, I move the cattle to a new paddock which I do daily as I am working with the principles of holistic planned grazing.”
Fynn says that direct selling was always a natural progression from a smallholding.
He was producing good organic food for himself, and it was not long before friends and locals from the valley started expressing an interest in what he was up to and the food he was producing.
Initially, he bartered goods for firewood and the loan of different pieces of farm equipment like trailers etc.
But eventually, he had ideas about selling produce online, and from the farm gate, so he sought guidance from the Department of Environmental Health and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to “keep everything above board”.
Fynn works with the principles of what he calls community-supported agriculture.
In practice, this means that people subscribe for a bottle of milk or a box of eggs a week and pay upfront monthly. With his lamb, beef and pork boxes, customers pay a small deposit 12-14 weeks before delivery.
Community Supported Agriculture or CSA gives Fynn security and stability in the months ahead. He knows where his produce will be going, allowing him to plan and upscale if necessary.
He says the most important thing about this model is the relationship of mutual trust between the farmer and the customer.
The customer knows the farmer and knows where their food is coming from.
He offers farm walks to customers so they can see organic farming in practice and the welfare standards of livestock.
He has an online store hosted by the Open Food Network and sells from the farm gate. He sells all his meat at €14 per kilo, his milk for €3 per litre and his eggs for €3 for ½ dozen.
The farmer outlined: “Selling directly means you can get a premium for your produce, but to do this, you must communicate your ethics and practices to your customers.”
“I primarily use social media to do this by using photographs on Instagram and Facebook. I also have a website which gives potential customers information about his farm, practices and produce.”
The biggest challenge he has found is actually not farming but the marketing of his produce and finding routes to market.
He has had no training in marketing produce and admits that marketing does not come naturally to him.
“When you have customers, direct selling is a really great experience, but the hard part is finding those customers and getting the message out about the farm and the produce.”
His main focus currently is animal health and grassland management, and he said he is “learning a lot” from Teagasc whilst studying the Green Cert.
However, he is also interested in alternative ideas which are more in line with his own farming philosophy, which he describes as a low input system of farming in harmony with nature.
The area he would most like to focus on is how to boost biodiversity and enhance the environment on his farm – he is hoping the new ACRES environmental scheme will help him to do this.
His future plans include moving his hens down to the outfarm and looking at a movable hen house and around the pasture. He is toying with the idea of keeping one or two of his pigs on for breeding his own piglets instead of buying them at 8-weeks-old.
He desires to grow his sheep enterprise by buying more breeding ewes and looking at a lowland breed.
Furthermore, he would like to run a couple more Galloway Bullocks each year but needs to grow his customer base to do this.
“I would also like to involve the children more in the farm as Kimball and Noomi are now at an age where they enjoy helping out.”
“They already enjoy simple tasks like walking the goats up to the commonage and collecting the eggs from the henhouse.”
He does admit the last two years have been quite an intense experience, having had to learn how to farm and build up the enterprise, both at the same time.
His ultimate goal is to grow the farm to a size that is financially sustainable, allowing him to farm full-time and live a “simple, comfortable” life with his family.
“What I like most about farming is being self-employed, working outside in nature, rural life, growing food, enjoying your own food and working with livestock.”
“The work is hard, and the days are long, but you are active, out in the fresh air, you are your own boss, and at the end of the day, you get to sit at the dinner table and reap the rewards for what you have sown,” he concluded.
You can follow the story of Heathbank Farm on Facebook and Instagram.
Fynn sells produce through his online store at www.heathbankfarm.ie and at the farm gate – Eircode N41 HV06
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