The 40-year journey: How one farmer progressed from manager to owner

Farming on the outskirts of Mallow, Co. Cork, John Fitzgerald mapped his transition from farm manager to owner at a recent farm walk.

Better known for his involvement with the Irish Farm Managers Association, Fitzgerald completed his training under the Farm Apprenticeship Scheme in 1975.

Hailing from Co. Limerick, Fitzgerald grew up on a ‘difficult farm’. And, as the acreage wasn’t large enough to sustain a dairy farming career, he looked elsewhere to advance his career.

On completion of his training, the Mallow-based dairy farmer had secured work on a research farm in Co. Dublin. But, his father was keen for him to stay as close to home as possible.

Fitzgerald admitted that he was eager to head to Dublin, as his then girlfriend (now wife) had also secured employment in the capital.

However, in 1975, he became the farm manager of his current holding in Dromahane, Mallow, Co. Cork.

“At the time, there were four elderly men working on the farm, milking 35 cows and keeping 30 beef cattle. They were very set in their ways and it was a very steep learning curve in people management for me.

“There was no infrastructure, such as roadways or paddocks, on the farm. But, by 1984, I had increased cow numbers to 80,” he said.

Building his own farming enterprise

In 1976, Fitzgerald began leasing ground to grow his own stock numbers as collateral.

The opportunity then arose to purchase 15ac of ‘poor land’, which Fitzgerald worked and reclaimed over the years. He later went on to sell this parcel of land to purchase 50ac close to Mallow.

In 1991, Fitzgerald was informed by his employers that they were going to sell the farm. He asked for the opportunity to purchase the farm and they agreed.

At the time, Fitzgerald had built a herd of 60 suckler cows on the 50ac farm. And, even when these assets were dispersed, he still required a ‘substantial amount of money’ to buy the farm.

“I had built up assets and a good relationship with ACC Bank, but I still needed to borrow a substantial amount of money.

“The local bank manager, with whom I had a good relationship, was not able to clear such a transaction. So someone from ACC’s main office had to come down and assess my proposal.

John Fitzgerald and Vincent Hennessy speaking at the farm walk

“He told me that it would never work; I was disappointed and I had to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

After some thought, Fitzgerald approached the bank manager handling the finances of the farm he had managed for approximately 16 years.

“I met with him and he took a punt on me. I sold the 60 suckler cows and the 50ac, which were quite close to Mallow town and had increased in value since I purchased it.

“To make the plan work, my wife Noreen had to remain in full-time employment,” he added.

Of the whole experience, Fitzgerald said: “It taught me the importance of developing a very good relationship with the bank.

If I made a covenant or a commitment to the bank, I would always keep it. They had 100% trust in me.

Practical training is vital

Fitzgerald also offered some excellent advice for those beginning their career in dairy farming.

“It’s so important for the younger generation to get proper mentoring. I spent a year working on a very good farm in New Ross, Co. Wexford and another two years in Co. Tipperary.

“The Irish dairy industry isn’t going to succeed without bringing people on board,” he said.

For the younger farm managers in attendance at the farm walk, Fitzgerald said: “Don’t try to make it happen over-night or you will fail.

You have a 30 or 40-year career ahead of you. If you build for the first 20 years, it can set you up for the next 20.

Farming alongside the next generation

John and Noreen have three daughters – none of whom were that involved in farming growing up.

“Of course I was thinking of moving on, but an opportunity presented itself three years ago and I was going to have to grab it,” he said.

One of Fitzgerald’s daughters, Orla, married Vincent Hennessy – who has a keen interest in pursuing a career in dairy farming.

Three years ago, the Fitzgeralds incorporated their business and are now trading under the banner of ‘Beechfield Farm Ltd’.

John and Noreen retain 80% ownership of the business, while Vincent and Orla own a 20% stake in the operation.

“We have structures in place that will see Vincent and Orla’s share of the business increase over the next four to five years.”

Farming system

John and Vincent currently run a herd of 165 Holstein Friesian cows (EBI of €107), 60 in-calf heifers (EBI of €149) and 80 calves (EBI of €149).

In the coming years, they plan on increasing cow numbers to 200 and they have already decided to breed a ‘smaller-type’ Holstein Friesian cow – the first of these are currently in milk.

In addition, John and Vincent have completed a number of building projects and are planning to carry out more.

Already, they have increased the cubicle housing available from 100 to 164 and have added an additional 10 units to the parlour.

In the coming years, they will build another cubicle shed capable of holding an additional 64 cows.

John and Vincent have also become increasingly focused on grass.

Just two years ago, their farm produced 9t DM/ha. The farm is expected to grow to 13t DM/ha this year. In the coming years, the target is to produce 15t DM/ha.