When the 2008 economic crash hit, carpenter Derek Allen returned to his family’s farm in Ardsallagh More, Roscommon to earn a living.
After assessing the future of the farm and making plans to add value, he and his brother Brendan began selling their own meat direct to the customer, “with no intermediaries”.
18 years later, Derek and his wife Lisa now produce and sell award-winning beef, pork, lamb and turkey through their Roscommon farm shop, at local farmers markets and online.
“Growing up, we always kept over 150 good continental cattle on the farm,” says Derek.
“Brendan and I have always had a keen interest in farming. I trained and worked as a carpenter while Brendan became a marine scientist.
“Then the crash came and I quickly found that work was drying up and I was spending more time on the farm again.”
It was then that Derek “realized that the traditional approach of raising meat and selling it through the factory and to the supermarkets wasn’t working” and decided to diversify and devote himself fully to the farm.
“I decided to sell our beef directly to the customer,” he says. “So I reached out to a local butcher, Terry McLoughlin, and asked if he would be interested in processing it for us and he agreed. He has an abattoir behind his butcher shop in Lanesborough.”
Derek took one of his continental heifers to the slaughterhouse and after the butcher prepared the meat he took it to a farmers market in Moycullen. He then brought more to another farmers market in Galway City.
“The response was fantastic, people really took an interest in the whole concept of farm-raised meat and traceability,” he says.
Realizing there was a market for his product, Derek made the decision with Brendan (who has since left the business and returned to his career in science) to convert an old farm shed into a farm shop and build directly from there Selling .
“We did well with both markets in Galway City and Moycullen, so the next step was to open the store too,” he says.
He also began phasing out the continental breeds and buying more traditional breeds like Aberdeen Angus and Hereford, and got into sheep to supply his shop with his own lamb.
Derek had his planning application approved, bought all of his refrigeration and food preparation equipment, and converted the old farm shed into a shop and meat storage facility. He continued to have his meat processed and packaged by the butcher.
Everything was going great until the heavy snowfall of 2010 which presented some challenges for Castlemine Farm.
“When the big freeze happened, the customers could not get near our farm with the ice. We were totally cut off, so we had to think fast,” says Derek.
“So within three or four days we moved into a rented shop in the town of Roscommon.”
The change of location proved favorable, so he decided to stay there.
“Access for customers was easier, so we decided to stay there.”
Then, as Castlemine Farm Shop outgrew the building it was in, Derek moved to a larger facility where he and Lisa continue to run their business.
“Lisa runs the shop and I run the farm – it works well for us. We also still sell at the two farmers’ markets every weekend,” says Derek.
Trial and error showed the Allens where the market was, and now they supply the store with beef, lamb, pork and turkey, all from their own farm, as well as chicken from other local farms.
“I bought 20 bronze turkeys in 2008 when I first started selling the beef at the farmers markets,” says Derek.
“When they did well I increased the number the following year and now I’m raising 400 a year. I get them in August and keep them until just before Christmas when I send them to Hogan’s for slaughter.”
He also keeps four sows and raises their piglets annually for the shop and keeps a flock of 300 crossbred ewes to provide lamb for the shop.
“I keep two Duroc boars and breed them with my sows and I keep Suffolk Cross ewes,” he says.
“Usually I get about 30 piglets from the sows.
“I spread the lamb out over a few months from January to April so I always have fresh lamb for the store.”
Derek realized he was missing a product that was affecting his trade.
“Customers have often asked for chicken or chicken fillets, but I haven’t had any – and if you don’t have what customers want, they go elsewhere and buy their beef and pork there while it’s at it.”
“So I decided to stock up on chicken from other local farmers. Now I have Jimmy Barlow organic chicken, regular Western Brand chicken and free range chicken from Windfall Farm.”
Derek also sources extra pork from another local farmer, Micky Cull, to supplement his own supply.
The Allens use traditional Irish methods to prepare their meat and Derek says this is key to maintaining a loyal customer base.
“We dry-age our beef, so it’s hung in quarters, which tenderizes the meat and brings out the flavor. The hindquarters, which contain roasts and steaks, are hung for 21 days, while the forequarter, which consists of ground beef and pot roast, is hung for two weeks,” he says.
“We dry our bacon the same way every household used to do in the olden days: we rub the meat with sugar and salt before sealing it in a bag so the rub can penetrate the meat. This gives it great flavor and a juicy texture.”
Derek also makes all his own sausages and has recently branched out into convenience food avenue.
“We built a kitchen in the back block of our store and hired two chefs and now produce a range of ready meals that customers love,” he says.
Having started online retail early in the pandemic, the Allens’ website was live at just the right time.
“We had it up and running just as lockdown took place and food sales, particularly online, really took off. We’ve sourced boxes and lined them with sheep’s wool padding and ice packs, and now offer next-day delivery nationwide with DPD,” he says.
The Allens want to keep their business and farm as sustainable as possible, so Derek grows 25cc corn to feed his cattle for the winter and late season.
“I grow barley and feed it to cattle and sheep. It’s a great way to keep as much in-house as possible while keeping costs down,” he says. “My father Sean is still a great help and is very involved in the farm.”
“It has taken 10 years to get where we are now. We chased our tails at the start’
How much start-up costs did you incur?
Initially, it only cost around 7,000 euros. We had the supply and bought a used van for the deliveries at the beginning and spent a bit of money renovating the shed but we got a LEADER grant for the equipment.
How long did it take to get the business up and running?
It took us 10 years to get where we are now. In the beginning we chased our tails like most people starting a business and everything we made we put right back into the farm and business for a couple of years.
Was it financed by the banks?
Yes, we were told that if we could put up the collateral we could get a loan, so we did.
What funding was there?
When we renovated the farm shed in 2010, we received a LEADER grant for our equipment. We brought this equipment with us when we moved to the city.
Is insurance required?
Yes. We have insured all aspects of the business; from product insurance to business liability insurance.
What was your biggest challenge?
For a number of years we have tried our hand at wholesale and supplying the hospitality industry with products from other manufacturers.
We ended up with loans from some suppliers, from 30 to 60 days, and we were running low on cash because we were always chasing. So we got out of it, and it’s not something we’ll ever come back to.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/agri-business/agri-food/how-this-roscommon-beef-farmer-cuts-out-the-middle-man-and-sells-his-meat-direct-to-the-customer-41564495.html How this Roscommon cattle farmer cuts out the middle man and sells his meat direct to the customer