Highlighting Local Businesses. Many of our local success stories pass under the radar. Here we intend to put this right with a section interviewing local businesses and highlighting their highs and lows.

James O'Neill, Sheep Farmer

Into The West

Cáit Curran from Organic Matters, Irelands Organic Magazine, talks to sheep farmers James and Catherine O'Neill,who are fighting to establish a regional brand for their mountain sheep. It’s an indication of Ireland’s lack of food culture that one of the country’s finest organic food products has no established market and producers find it difficult to source an organic outlet. That is why James O’Neill has made it his mission to reinstate mountain sheep on the menu and return good old fashioned mutton to its rightful place in the vernacular food language.

Subsistence Farming

Farming 340 ha of mountain land overlooking Killary Harbour near the village of Leenane in Connemara, the stunning landscape provides grazing for his four hundred black-faced mountain sheep. While this might seem like a lot of land and sheep, it is a struggle to eke out a living from the farm. “You can divide that by ten to compare with an average low-land farm,” James says.“Our stocking rate is very low and until we have an established market, some form of state support is needed”. The O’Neill family - James, his wife Catherine and daughter Aoife love their surroundings and the farming life. “I did the Green Cert in the mid-80s when it was first introduced and I’ve always been involved in agriculture-related work,” he says, while Catherine found it hard at first to adjust to the rural life when she moved out from Galway city. Their isolated location can be a disadvantage in some respects and the O’Neills and a neighbour had sheep stolen last year when they were absent from the farm for a day.

Distinctive Breed

Black-faced, horned mountain sheep are a distinct breed known for their hardiness and ability to withstand cold harsh winters. They survive well on the mountain, making them as close to a wild domesticated animal as you can get. James is convinced that the herbage the mountain pasture provides gives the sheep meat a unique flavour.“We have different types of heather such as ling and cross leaf, purple moor grass, cripple grass and other varieties and this gives a strong flavour to the mutton,” he says. It was the purity of his product that encouraged him to look for organic certification. “There was little difference between how I farmed previously and now, so moving into the organic system wasn’t difficult”. His sheep are rounded up about four times a year and if liver fluke presents a problem in a wet year, an additional dose may be needed on veterinary certification.“We don’t have quantity but we do have quality,” James says. “We don’t want to go the route of putting up sheds and feeding to finish stock because that dilutes the flavour of the finished animal,” Catherine agrees – “I love mutton. It makes the most tasty stew and our friends are always asking for it. James cooked burgers for the Leenane autumn festival last year and they went like hot cakes”.

Marketing Dilemma

Maintaining the distinctiveness of the product presents the biggest problem.“Conventional lamb is fattened and sold after a few months and because such a good marketing job has been done, people associate spring with the time to try new season’s lamb,” James explains. “We lamb in April and May and it takes eighteen to twenty-four months to finish an animal so we have a limited season usually between August and the end of the year to sell our product. At that stage it is mutton rather than lamb and has had time to develop its exceptional flavour”. At present, most of James’ lambs are sold as stores through the conventional mart, and while prices have improved somewhat, the real price premium is being reaped by the finisher. In order to create a sustainable business James knows he must bring his stock to finish to get the full premium. “Is it sustainable to keep an animal for eighteen months and still get a premium,” he asks. “Added to that, can I produce sufficient numbers to consistently supply the market”? What he can sell is curtailed by the need to keep breeding and replacement stock. This could be solved by co-operation among local farmers to increase the numbers of finished sheep available. “If I could lease more land and make an arrangement with other local farmers so that we could say exactly how many finished sheep we could produce a week, then I would be on the way to making it add up,” James says. At present he is co-operating with another local organic producer and is hoping to persuade a few more to convert. Local Specialisation Ideally, he would like to see the product sold locally in restaurants and as a speciality of the region. “We would need our own on-farm processing facility and to keep it within the region as much as possible so that it’s seen as a food local to the Connemara area in the same way that you see local specialities in other European countries”. Given that food and farming are among the few growth areas in the economy, James thinks it ironic that so little support is available to develop food products.“Leader funding for food is suspended and you would really need some form of support to develop a product like Connemara mutton,” he says. Given the demand for Irish mountain lamb in Europe, James sees no reason why an export market couldn’t be developed in time.“Consistency of supply is the big problem and enabling farmers to grow that supply is the crucial issue”.

Farming Lifestyle

Like all farmers, James is weary of the ever-increasing bureaucracy and regulation associated with farming. “A more sympathetic view of farming in mountainous regions is needed instead of a coverall policy designed with typical lowland farming in mind. The stocking rate of the area must be taken into account,” he feels. “The farmer should be allowed to farm and should be responsible for the land and allowed the freedom to farm but he should also pay the penalty if he contravenes regulations”. “What we do isn’t for everyone, it’s a way of life,” Catherine says. “I suppose you could say we are trying to survive in Connemara. I’d like to think that our daughter would be able to inherit a sustainable working farm. What we produce is to as high a standard as you will find anywhere in Europe. It is a struggle and it is stressful but we believe in our product and we will keep going”. Reproduced by kind permission of Organic Matters magazine