Catherina Cunnane, That’s Farming editor, in conversation with Rodney Balfour (45) from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. They discuss giving up life on the road for farm life, Mullygarry Farm, lambing close to 400 ewes and opening a farm shop during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My family have always been small farmers, as back as far as I know. My wife, Emma, also comes from a farming tradition, and her family have farmed locally for generations. However, I was not always a farmer, and I drove lorries long distances for many years.
It wasn’t until a major health scare in 2016 that I gave up life on the road and found my way back to farming.
My earliest farming-related memory is falling asleep on top of my favourite cow, Daisy. I must have been 6 or 7.
She stood up so I couldn’t get down and had to wait until she lay down again to get off her back! I also have fond memories of making hay with my father and brothers on summer evenings.
My family always had sucklers, and Emma’s family are beef and dairy farmers.
I farm full-time, but my wife Emma is a full-time nurse and a full-time farmer! Emma, our son, Sam, who is in university in the UK, and I run Mullygarry Farm.
We have Ile-de-France and Ryeland sheep; our ewes are Texel-crosses, Ryelands and Suffolks. We chose these breeds for their leanness, carcass quality and flavour of meat.
We have built up our flock mainly by breeding our own replacements to almost 400 ewes. At the moment, we are lambing four times a year indoors and use cameras.
We decided to have four lambings per year to always have fresh lamb in the shop and a steady supply of produce all year round.
Also, we use teaser rams to control the lambing period somewhat. We fatten progeny, selling them either through the shop or the factory.
As our focus is on the quality of our meat, we strive to breed animals with long loins, racks and as lean as possible
For me, lambing time is the most enjoyable; this is when you see your hard work come to fruition.
Honestly, getting the help, I need to keep everything running smoothly is something I find challenging. There are a lot of balls to juggle, and it is hard to keep everything going at once! I am lucky that I have a supportive family and friends who help whenever they can.
I am a member of both the Ile-de-France and Ryeland Societies. We exhibited our sheep at agricultural shows pre-Covid. At Balmoral Show, we managed to win best in class and reserve champion for our Ryelands.
My responsibilities range from mucking out the sheds to feeding lambs to taking orders for the shop – it’s all go! My wife would tell you I am also a good delegator, however.
I am most passionate about sustainable farming and trying to keep our carbon footprint low.
Farming has come under fire recently for its harm to the environment. I want to show that not only can it be done sustainably and ethically, but our sheep and our business thrive from it.
To be a successful sheep farmer, it takes enthusiasm for what you do, belief in what you do and a drive to make it a success.
For anyone starting in sheep farming, I would advise you to choose a breed or breeds that interest you and focus on those. And also, to research the type of sheep you want and think about breeding your own unique flock.
Honestly, if I could turn back the clock, I would have started years ago. I spent years working long hours in a lonely job with very little satisfaction. Now, I have found something that I love and can put my heart and soul into.
Our shop, Mullygarry Farm, is located at 96, Moybane Rd, Enniskillen, and we first opened our doors in June 2020. Emma and I open three afternoons a week: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
All our lamb is born and bred on Mullygarry Farm. Our lamb is butchered locally by a good friend, who takes great care in making the most and best of the meat. This also keeps our carbon footprint low.
What makes our lamb different is the taste, but we also love to chat with our customers, recommend cuts to them and suggest different ways of cooking lamb.
Racks and centre loins are our best sellers, but we also sell lamb rashers, and Emma makes trays of ribs with her mother’s secret sauce – they are very popular! If I don’t get my hands on them first!
We are still perfecting our dry-age lamb recipe and are currently working with Loughry College to make it even better. We are always looking to make new innovative products that have never been tried before, at least not in Ireland.
Lamb is common in many international cuisines, and we’ve taken inspiration from everywhere, from Morocco to Norway. Also, we have four very busy hens who keep the farm shop stocked with fresh eggs!
We opened the farm shop in the middle of the pandemic and had originally planned to supply local restaurants; however, as they were closed, that did not happen.
In hindsight, that turned out to be a good thing as we have been forced to explore other avenues and found some fantastic opportunities along the way.
I am very, very proud of what we have produced on our farm in a very short space of time. My highlight has to be opening our farm shop and seeing the delight from our customers when they taste our lamb.
We think it is exquisite, but it makes me immensely proud to know others do too!
We hope to have a fully pedigree flock of Ile-de-France and Ryeland sheep in the future. Furthermore, we have also recently introduced a new breed, Dutch Spotted, to increase the rack’s size and make the loin thicker with less bone.
We will continue experimenting and seeing what works best for our flock and business. We want to stay true to ourselves, keep our lamb of premium quality, and continue serving the community and local shops and businesses.
With hard work and determination, sheep farming is a viable business. However, I feel there is a need to diversify, and conventional sheep farms are becoming harder and harder to run.
I think the future for sheep farming is positive. In Northern Ireland, I feel there is a need to diversify the market and promote lamb more. It can be environmentally sustainable and is very beneficial for health and wellbeing.
There is an emerging market in Ireland for better quality, sustainably produced lamb; we need to seize those opportunities.
My goal is to bring joy to our customers, to have them love the taste of our produce, as well as celebrating our values.
The last five years have been a journey with many peaks and troughs. There are many things I might have done differently, but I have no regrets and returning to farming was the best decision I ever made.
I am driven by my belief in myself and the people around me – Emma, Sam, my sisters-in-law, Sheryl, and Kara, who help on the farm and with our website and social media, and the rest of the family.
They fly the Mullygarry flag at every opportunity. None of this would have been possible without all of them and their support.”
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