Pat O’Sullivan readily admits that he may not be an expert when it comes to the standard family farm.

But what he does know about is the relationship with quality produce, nutritional value and flavour – which may help to explain why nearly two years ago he acquired a 20ac farm in Ballyneety, Co. Limerick.

The purchase for him is all about returning to his roots and bringing a long-held ambition to develop a “farm to fork, back to farm” project to life.

O’Sullivan grew up on a farm in the 1970s and 1980s, back when he said organic was simply a way of life.

“We didn’t have the fancy title back then but I grew up on a small farm that was really and truly organic in every way.

“We grew all our own produce and reared our own cattle and pigs and sheep and ducks and geese but back then it was normal to us; we were doing it organically but we just didn’t have a label for it,” he said.

His purchase of the farm in Ballyneety was driven part out of frustration and part out of a longing to recapture something from his childhood growing up on a farm.

O’Sullivan founded the privately owned catering company Master Chefs in 1998, which operates across the education, health care, sport and leisure sectors, and also has a stable of restaurants and cafes.

It currently employs 150 full-time staff and is planning to expand its headcount by establishing a new commercial division.

Quality and volume

But recently a growing frustration with the quality and volume of the vegetables that he was seeing coming in through the doors of his various businesses every day made O’Sullivan think he could do better.

“We’re returning products left right and centre to suppliers because they are already rotten coming in – a product could be a week old when we get it and that is just not acceptable for us.

“This trend has really developed over the last 18 months to two years, I don’t believe that overall quality has never been amazing, and I don’t know if it is because of Brexit or what is going on in the world or the pandemic or if it is a combination of all of this probably, but certainly the quality of what we are receiving has seriously declined,” he lamented.

Farm purchase

Faced with being unable to “source the quality and volume” of vegetables that the business needed week in week out, O’Sullivan decided to do something radical.

Organic produce is not in sufficient supply to meet the needs of a large catering organisation – we’re only scraping the surface of what we can currently buy organically at a reasonable price point.

“We’re not in a position to go and buy in a farmers’ market because clearly we’re too big for that and the huge inconvenience of that and we need a product delivered at least to our central product facility that we can process and take on from there. So, I bought the farm,” he explained.

O’Sullivan said he and his team of chefs simply got fed up with not being able to get their hands on the produce they needed.

“We find it difficult to source vegetables across the board for the volumes that we need when we’re using conventional suppliers or wholesale importers.

“The problem with that is a; the airmiles involved and b; it is already five or six days old when we get it – so the quality just isn’t there or the nutritional value or the flavour.

“I think that anyone sees that quite often in any supermarket. People buy carrots from a supermarket and put them in the fridge at home and they’re gone off two days later; the quality is lacking,” he stressed.

He plans to address the problem faced by his business by returning to his childhood roots.

“I suppose the farm is in me; I appreciate and value, the difference of what I had growing up and I want to bring it back into our own organisation.

“There’s nothing comparable to the flavours that can be achieved by doing this – it is a huge investment but I think this investment will be rewarded at the other end by growth in the catering company.

“We’re not setting out to make it a profitable farm, we’re setting out to make a farm that fulfills the needs of the business,” he said.

According to O’Sullivan the first crops will be planted on the Ballyneety farm from next February onwards.

“We’ll have crops from late-spring. We won’t sow the entire 20ac next year, but I do want to experiment with crops not traditionally grown here.

“Within the farm we have some sheltered areas and some exposed areas – some are better suited for certain crops and we want to experiment a bit with that.

“We have peaks and troughs in our business like most business and we won’t get this perfect immediately but we want to be able grow to the demands of the business and the volume of the products that are required,” he added.


He said the farm will also create new jobs in the area and recruitment is already underway to find the “right people with the right skills”.

“One of our key aims is to develop the farm also as an educational centre for our customers. Sustainability really matters us, we want to play our part and deliver on that,” O’Sullivan explained.

“We want to be a zero-waste business and we’re somewhat down the road on that journey already over the last number of years but this ‘farm to fork, back to farm’ is really part of that vision. By 2025, I really believe we’ll be growing the produce that we need for the business,” he said.