That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, speaks to Aine Kinsella of Tara Hill Flowers.
Spring 2020 may have marked the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it was also when Aine Kinsella’s flower farm came to life.
The owner of Tara Hill Flowers sowed her first seed on March 16th, 2020, just as Ireland was about to enter its first lockdown arising from the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The Castletown, Gorey, Co Wexford native grew up on a dairy farm and studied agriculture, specialising in ag and food engineering technology at UCD. She spent two decades in Ireland and then Norway, working in the food industry.
She later established a consultancy business in the capital, which involved travel and long hours, which she continued to run after they purchased their home with 2.7-acres in Tara Hill.
Her newest enterprise results from the light-bulb moment the 48-year-old experienced at 3 am when travelling to the UK on business. She did not return until 10 pm, and with two small children and a husband who also had a demanding job, she felt things had to change.
Family and work-life
She told That’s Farming: “My kids went to school that day as normal, but neither their mam nor dad were within two hours of them if anything happened. That did not sit well with me, and I said something has to give.”
“We had moved from Dublin. It was proving harder for the two of us to work at full pace and also give our children the life we wanted for them.”
“Our children were 8 and 6 at the time, and we wanted to make sure we spent as much time as possible with them,” added Aine, who moved back to rural Ireland in 2018.
Then, the Coronavirus pandemic struck, and its grounding of the airline industry meant that travel was no longer an option. Her consultancy business “dried up” when international travel was curtailed.
Having purchased polytunnels in January of that year, she focused on planting the 2.7-acre (0.7-acres in cut flowers) enterprise.
“We probably got through three years of work in the first six months as there was nothing else happening.”
“This farm has come about because of Covid-19. I would not have been able to give the time to the business if not for the pandemic. Our business would not have been established if not for COVID-19.”
Tara Hill Flowers
The Wexford businesswoman had begun laying the foundations for her new venture in the previous year when she completed flower farming courses with Leitrim Flowers, which gave her the confidence to take the next step.
Both Aine and her husband hail from farming backgrounds, which meant they knew the basics of soil and plant care. Her uncle, John Nangle, is a horticulturist, and he provided advice on plant nutrition.
Currently, she operates the business full-time, alongside running a busy home with two young children.
She grows a mixture of annual and perennial flowers, mostly from seed. At the beginning of each year, she constructs a plan to ensure a spread of different flower types are in bloom for as much of the year as possible.
All flowers are 100% grown on the slopes of Tara Hill using just three ingredients – the seed, the seasons and the soil.
She desires to “bring the joy of seasonal” Irish grown cut flowers nationwide through an interactive online experience.
“Spring is very busy as most of the seeds germinate in our small glasshouse before being transplanted to the field as seedlings.”
“This involves thousands of seeds and plants in hundreds of trays and pots. We have one small polytunnel, and we plan our rotation here to have early flowers.”
“We grew the flowers and promoted them through social media. Word of mouth has also brought several new customers to us,” the Flower Farmers of Ireland group member added.
Becoming a flower farmer
She explained that there are many different elements to becoming a flower farmer.
- Planning the range of flowers that you are going to grow;
- Preparing the soil to ensure that your seed has the best chance;
- Germinating the seed and transplanting seedlings;
- Managing slugs and diseases;
- Controlling weeds;
- Supporting flowers from extremes of wind and rain;
- Planning your sales approach, which includes setting up social media and planning out where and when you are going to sell your flowers;
- Developing your branding to ensure that you can develop a unique selling point and build customer loyalty;
- Delivering high levels of customer satisfaction so that customers remain loyal and spread the word about you.
Aine admitted that the list of jobs and tasks are endless and, at times, can be overwhelming.
“I was overwhelmed this year with the poor weather in April and May as we struggled to get the plants up and growing.”
“You need to have a lot of determination and resilience to keep going and juggling all the priorities.”
Target market and coastal location
Aine sells most of her flowers online through her dedicated website, www.tarahillflowers.ie. She ships orders nationwide and also sells locally.
Her cut flower business is seasonal, but she has established a substantial Christmas wreath business. For next year, part of her business plan is to add more elements to her website that “reflects the lifestyle that we lead and what we believe our customers are looking for”.
Her target market is diverse, but essentially her customers are “people who are looking for a fresh, natural Irish sourced product produced sustainably and environmentally”.
“Most of our customers love coming to see what we do or watching our progress on social media.”
“Feedback from customers has been wonderful. We have managed to grow sales in a period when there were no weddings, which is traditionally a big outlet for fresh flowers.”
Due to their coastal location in north Wexford, most customers are within a 25-mile radius. In many cases, they are Dublin-based but have a holiday home in this area.
“There is a good market for fresh Irish flowers as most flowers sold in Ireland are currently imported, but a growing number of consumers are keen to buy Irish.”
“We cannot grow flowers 12 months of the year, so it will always be a seasonal business.”
She outlined that flower growing is a “very” labour intensive job, and like other farming enterprises, it can be difficult at some times of the year to stay on top of the workload.
Also, matching supply and demand can be challenging, as neither the weather nor orders can be forecasted accurately. “So we just have to grow plenty of flowers and do our best to sell as many of them as we can.”
“I love being my own boss, and it is a joy to walk out into a field of colourful flowers on a bright day. Bees and butterflies surround us as we work in a field of flowers overlooking the Irish Sea.”
“We certainly made lots of mistakes, but it is part of the learning process. For example, we struggled to beat the weeds in our first season.”
“However, this year, it has been easy to manage as we have installed good ground cover material with holes for the flowers to grow through.”
ACORNS – a development initiative to support early-stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland – has also supported Aine in her venture.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has issued a call for applicants for ACORNS 7. ACORNS is funded under the department’s Rural Innovation and Development Fund.
The free initiative will run over six months from October 2021 to April 2022, with the deadline for applications at midnight on September 10th, 2021, as reported by That’s Farming.
There is no charge for those participating in ACORNS due to the DAFM’s support and the voluntary contribution of time by the lead entrepreneurs.
“ACORNS introduced me to a supportive network of like-minded female entrepreneurs dealing with similar challenges. I learned from their advice, and their support was very helpful.”
“My ultimate goal is to enjoy life with a healthy and happy family around me. Also, I want to continue to be my own boss so that I can manage my own time and set my own agenda.”
Aine, who has put her consultancy business on hold until 2022, is keen to drive the flower farm forward.
In year two, they launched their own website and for year three, they plan to improve digital marketing strategies to drive more orders through that channel.
“Longer term, we plan to build the business slowly in a manner that ensures that we continue to enjoy a good work-life balance.”
“We have another two-acres available but will not plant it with flowers unless we can see a market for the produce. For now, our area of 0.7-acres is more than enough to manage!”
“Hopefully, we will have evolved the business into one with a strong, loyal customer base for flowers, but with some additional complementary streams to the business.”
“We have enjoyed our journey so far and are appreciative of the support from our customers. Telling the story of our little flower farm through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook has also been an interesting part of the journey.”
“We have spent very little on marketing but have built a good loyal following by telling our story and sharing the ups and downs of flower farming,” she concluded.
To share your story like Tara Hill Flowers, email – [email protected]
Read more success stories from ACORNS participants.