That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with John Graham (41) from Ballyholey Farm Shop in this week’s Farmer Focus segment. They discuss his diverse enterprise.
“I am from Ballyholey, located just outside Raphoe in Co Donegal. My father farmed here before me. He took early retirement in 2002 and gave the farm over to me, although he still comes out the odd time to help and give plenty of invaluable advice.
My father always grew potatoes and a small amount of vegetables. However, I diversified extensively in 2013/2014 when I decided to open a farm shop and started to work with some restaurants.
I have 65-acres on the home farm and another 65-acres split between two out-farms.
We have 12-acres of potatoes, 10-acres of mixed vegetables and 10-acres of barley. Besides, we have 50-60 dairy bull calves that we purchase every year and finish at 24 months.
We are lucky to be located just off the main Letterkenny to Lifford Road. It is a good location for a farm shop just off a busy road. We built a new farm shop in May last year because we had outgrown our last one. Also, we made the car park bigger.
We have three polytunnels behind the shop, where we grow tomatoes, salad leaves and spinach.
In the field beside the tunnels, we have our portable hen house for laying hens.
Ballyholey Farm Shop
I have two full-time and two part-time; I am on the farm full-time. Firstly, I am hands-on on the farm, doing everything and organising everyone else. I feed cattle, oversee farm maintenance, harvest, sow, sort potatoes and deliver to restaurants.
Furthermore, man our stall every Saturday at The Letterkenny Real Food and Farmers’ Market and also help run the market.
Also, I have the task of keeping on top of paperwork and record-keeping.
Rory does a lot of sowing in the tunnels, harvesting, and preparing orders, and my sister, Louise, runs the shop for me and looks after our online orders.
Orla has joined the team this year. She has an interest in cattle and generally helps around the farm. Sarah works with me on a Saturday at the Letterkenny Market. My father helps out now and again also.
My wife, Tracey, the principal of a local school and my two children, Peter (7) and Carrie (3), can often be seen helping to move cattle or on the back of the cabbage planter.
Nephews or neighbours, nobody is safe from being roped in when we are busy.
I love how we have diversified, supplying the customer direct with great produce. For years before I opened the farm shop, I was constantly battling with wholesalers for a good price.
Now I work directly with the customer and some of the best food places to eat in Donegal, who appreciate what we do.
I love seeing people come to the farm, be it to the farm shop or for some of our events, such as our ‘Dig Your Dinner’ event, which we have held for the past three years.
I usually start at about 6.15 am and feed my cattle. After that, I come into the house and have breakfast with the children, and I drop them to school/ playschool.
From there, I usually deliver to restaurants etc. and then I go back to the farm to do whatever I have to do – harvesting, stocking the farm shop, fixing machinery, feeding cattle etc. There are never two days the same on the farm!
Working outdoors most of the time in the fresh air is my favourite aspect. I never really had an interest in doing anything else.
Trying to keep the business viable when the costs are skyrocketing is a challenge.
I took over the farm during the first reference period for the single farm payment. Because of how things were calculated back then, I have been stuck with a small single farm payment ever since.
Because our single farm payment is small and the fact that potato and vegetable growing are not subsidised, you have to work hard to make it viable.
The weather is a challenge, but I suppose that has always been the case, especially up here in the north-west. However, I suppose the biggest challenge is producing
We work a few slogans – ‘know your farmer, know your food’ and ‘grown here, not flown here.’
We grow different varieties of potatoes, including golden wonder, pinks, queens, rooster, carrots, rainbow carrots, different varieties of cabbages, turnips, onions, garlic, parsnips, beetroots, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, squashes, tomatoes, peas, salad leaves, celery, leeks and even pumpkins.
All these different types of vegetables need different sowing dates, sowing rates, sowing depths etc.
It is a challenge trying to remember everything. Over time, you do gain some experience, but every day is a school day!
We sell this produce from our farm shop here on the farm. Besides, the farmers’ market in Letterkenny and a few wholesale customers who sell door to door are other sale outlets.
Over the last number of years, we have started to work more with local restaurants that are interested in sourcing fresh, locally grown produce. We deliver to about eight restaurants now.
Premium prices and routes to market
We have an online shop – Ballyholeyfarmshop.com. Customers can order here for collection at the farm shop. We set up the online store at the start of the first lockdown, and it was invaluable at this time.
During the first lockdown, demand went through the roof. Although it is not as busy now, we are a lot busier now than pre-Covid-19, as we have retained a good few of our new customers.
Our produce is unique because it is locally grown, handpicked, and fresh from the field. Every year, we rotate around our fields where we grow our veg. This avoids the build-up of pests and diseases in the ground. In turn, this reduces the need for chemical inputs.
Customers do pay a premium for our produce because they know the effort, we go to produce what we have on offer, and they know that the price that some produce is sold at in the big discount store just is not viable.
We sell around 50% through our farm shop, 25% through farmers’ market and the remainder through restaurants/wholesale.
To achieve this level of success, we worked hard and just watched how customer demand was heading.
To capitalise on our success, we hope to hold more events on the farm like the Dig for Your Dinner event and open days, for example.
I love to see more people eating real food, and I like to develop our online orders more.
Moreover, I hope to have a bustling farm shop where people make shopping part of their routine.
Multinationals using fruit and veg as loss leaders to get people into their shops is the sector’s biggest threat.
Hectic modern life where people find it hard to find time to cook meals from scratch is another.
All in all, my goal is to have a viable farm with less effort. Every day is a school day. Agriculture is getting so much bad press at the moment.
It is hard to know what the outcome will be. It looks like farmers are the ones who are being thrown under the bus for climate change.”
To share your story, email Ballyholey Farm Shop – [email protected]
Read more Farmer Focus profiles.