Porridge oats proved to be the perfect enterprise diversification for a Westmeath organic cereal and beef farm family.

The Lalors of Kilbeggan have gone from having one pallet milled in 2011, to now producing just under 2.5t of porridge oats weekly, along with 2,000 packets of cookies.

Their award-winning Kilbeggan porridge oats and cookies, which are enjoyed in this country as well as the UK, the US and Russia, are sold in retail outlets and online.

Pat Lalor attended Warrenstown agricultural college in 1965 and then returned home to farm just under 300ac with his parents.

“We had a number of farm enterprises: Beef finishing, sheep, purebred pigs and some cereals,” said Pat, a Farming for Nature ambassador.

“During the 1970s and ’80s we specialised in winter finishing, but in the ’90s this enterprise became less financially attractive for various reasons.

“I had four young children in second level and I felt I had to make some serious changes to my farming enterprise in order to have a sustainable income in the future.”

Having explored various options, organic production looked the most attractive.

“My simple reason for changing was to make a better income. The environment, climate change, sustainability etc. were unheard of at that time. However, over time I have become fascinated by the soil, and how it can give abundant crop with the proper care,” said Pat.

“We started selling our organic porridge oats in 2011 by getting just one pallet milled. We then approached local independent shops and managed to convince a few to stock our oats. From that one pallet in 2011, mainly through word of mouth, we now sell all our oats under our own brand, Kilbeggan organic porridge oats.

“Because we want to preserve the unique flavour of our own oats, we do not buy in oats from any other source.

“In 2014, we launched our handmade oat cookies that were developed by my wife Lily, from her own recipe, and since then we have expanded the range to four delicious flavours.

“We get the oats milled on contract and likewise we get the cookies baked on contract, but we do all our own packing and distribution from our premises in Tullamore. We have availed of a number of grants under the organic capital investment scheme to help us grow our business,” Pat said.

A family affair

“Lily is the chief new-product designer. Her baking skills led the way in our development of oat cookies. She is also a fierce saleswoman when it comes to promoting at shows,” said Pat.

“All our children have served their time at shows such as Bloom, Tullamore Show and the Ploughing Championships. They also have first class honours in pulling docks and picking stones.

“John, having spent seven years in Australia, came home in 2015 and he now manages the Kilbeggan organic foods business, as well as helping me to run the farm.

“Liz, who now works with Kerry Group, completed a marketing fellowship with Bord Bia. She is our marketing whizz and ensures that we can get our message across to our customers. We currently employ four people including myself,” he said.

“The biggest challenge to starting a new business is the steep learning curve. I have been farming all my life but I had to quickly learn the do’s and don’ts of running a food business.

“It’s all learning by doing and that always has its ups and downs. I didn’t have a feasibility study but I did have a dream.

“Being naive can be a big advantage when starting a business because if you knew all the pot holes ahead, you might never take the chance. However, I have been very lucky along the way and you need that,” said Pat.

Pandemic production

“We have been very lucky that the lockdown has brought renewed focus on healthy eating and eating in the home. So we have been kept busy since lockdowns started. Our website sales have increased markedly since this all began as people were wary of heading to the supermarkets,” said Pat.

“We don’t have any plans for world domination but we would love to use the whole farm to grow and sell our produce under our own brand.”

Organic farming

Pat describes organic farming as working with respect for the soil. He uses farmyard manure from his cattle to grow clover, cereal and grass on rotation.

He has half the farm in arable and half in beef, where he keeps 130 weanlings for a year. Through this, he has built up a thriving ‘field-to-fork’ business at Ballard organic farm.

A strong advocate for organic farming, he operated an open farm for 20 years, welcoming school groups, agricultural students and interested members of the public.

“While conventional farming is about the chemistry of the soil, organic farming is about the biology of the soil. When Birdwatch Ireland did a survey of songbirds here, there were 32 different species present,” said Pat.

That’s surely music to the ears of consumers keen to hear the backstory of their purchases.