The food scene in Galway has never been in a better place. There are so many talented artisan producers and retailers offering the most amazing produce and one need only visit the plethora of farmers' markets around the county to witness this. One such business is The Friendly Farmer poultry which produces the most succulent chicken, turkey, and duck directly to your dinner table courtesy of Ronan Byrne's farm in Athenry.
The Friendly Farmer's stall will be familiar to customers who attend the Moycullen market on Fridays or the Saturday Galway market, while the chickens are also stocked at McCambridges in Shop Street. A large part of the business consists of supplying restaurants and the poultry is served at well known Galway eateries, Kai, Cava, Aniar, Eat at Massimo, and Loam.
It is an enterprise that started from humble beginnings. Ronan Byrne's parents were farming their 35 acre holding in Atheny on a part-time basis but the younger generation was determined to map out a full-time living off the land. "I always wanted to be a full-time farmer, but I did explore other options - I spent about six months working in the Financial Services Centre in Dublin but I was like a bull in a china shop! I had a pain in my stomach to go farming. I went to Poland to manage a farm and one evening I just had this eureka moment. I read a book that said each person will eat an average of 500 chickens in their lifetime. I just thought to myself - that is a lot of chicken." And indeed poultry has never been more popular. While we will always be known as a nation of red meat eaters, the merits of chicken and turkey are well publicised. A breast of chicken is significantly cheaper than a steak and much lower in saturated fat.
'It is not the size of the farm - it is what you do with it' is Ronan Byrne's motto and it has served him well thus far. So how does a person educate himself to make the complete turnaround from being a suckler beef farmer to a full-time poultry connoisseur? He is self-taught and the answer is very simple, "a lot of googling!''
A winner at The Irish Restaurant Awards
The business, which started up in 2005, has been recently recognised on a national sphere as it was awarded the prestigious title of Local Food Hero at the acclaimed Irish Restaurant Awards. It was certainly a hard fought title as The Friendly Farmer was in the same category as well known chef Donal Skehan, and possibly one of the names that is best associated with Ireland's gastronomy, Darina Allen. The value of these type of awards to small businesses can not be under estimated due to the positive publicity they generate. Ronan Byrne says he was completely shocked to have taken home the top prize. "We decided to go to Dublin for the night out and a little break, when our name was called out, I nearly fell off my seat. We were stunned but absoutely estatic when it sank in. It is particularly good to get an award from a restaurant association as I have the height of respect for chefs and the work that they do, and a lot of chefs have been very supportive of our work. It is brilliant to get any sort of recognition as we have a very small marketing budget. These types of awards also give people the confidence to try your product."
Every stage of the process which sees you enjoying that mouth-watering chicken at your dinner table is now handled on the farm. With the aid of the Galway Enterprise Board, a new abbatoir was constructed on site a few years ago. This development has allowed the business expand further and there are now 300 birds killed each week, which on a yearly basis amounts to some 15,000. It is pretty impressive considering that only 500 birds were killed in their first full year of business back in 2005.
On the day we spoke to this very friendly farmer he was already preparing for Christmas and was busily transporting 1,000 day-old turkeys to Galway from County Meath. "Christmas starts here for us. I will basically be a mother hen to 1,000 birds for the next while, it is like a big maternity ward! They need a lot of minding for the first five to eight weeks. The birds have to be kept at body temperature of 32 degrees and they must be fed and hydrated regularly.''
Melt in the mouth chicken
So why does The Friendly Farmer's chicken, turkey, and duck taste so good? Firstly a slower maturing breed of chicken known as Hubbard is used. A standard bird could be in the shops at between five and six weeks, The Friendly Farmer's chicken will not be eaten until they are between 10 and 12 weeks old. Bronze turkeys and Ailesbury ducks are also superior. The duck is dry aged which is an older method which ensures it tastes better. The products are obviously also wholly free range in that the chicks wander around the farm to their hearts' content. Mr Byrne believes one of the most important factors in the taste is the fact the birds only travel 100 yards to the in-house processing plants. "They are not under any stress."
This is a quintessential family business with wife Maria and parent's Padraig and Mary also heavily involved. There are now a number of people employed on a part-time basis to help out during busier periods. It is expanding organicially at a consistant pace. Mr Byrne believes the best businesses are developed over a number of generations and he cites the world famous Ballymaloe brand as an example of what can be achieved after multiple generations.
At 37 he has many more years to offer this fledgling enterprise. It is patently obvious he loves what he does and the TLC being awarded to the poultry cannot be denied. So has he any words of wisdom for other would-be entrepreneurs? "It is frightening taking that first step and leaving paid employment. You have to passionate about what you are doing - when you are self-employed you will put in the hours. But if you believe you have a good idea and are prepared to work hard, it is worth it. What you lose in money at first, you gain in life satisfaction."