Over the last 44 years the Hennigan family have diversified their Sligo farm in more ways than one: Benbulben Farm houses a large flock of sheep and up to 10,000 laying hens whilst the farmhouse is run as a B&B.
It was like most mixed farms in my dad Jimmy’s day,” says Michael, who now runs the farm with his brother-in-law Richard.
“He had a couple of pigs and he milked a couple of cows and also did a bit of tillage – mostly potatoes and oats. He was what one would call self-sufficient; back then they were all.
“He stopped milking in the 1970s because the milk price was so bad and started fattening heifers. The farm then became a demonstration farm for Teagasc.”
With a family of seven, Jimmy and his wife Ann opened their home as a B&B in the late ’70s to supplement the farm’s income.
“Mom was encouraged by a friend who was already in the B&B business and knew there was a great demand for farm accommodation and mountain hiking,” says Michael.
“The farm and house are in a very picturesque part of Sligo at the foot of Benbulben and there is a choice of blue flag beaches within a few miles of us in all directions. Mum knew that would help attract visitors.”
The Hennigans had always been shareholders in Benbulben Mountain with their farm ‘in its foothills’ and hoped to attract hill walkers.
“Although it looks steep, it’s not difficult to climb and the top is flat, so mum and dad knew it was going to be a nice attraction,” says Michael.
“It has proved popular – mum’s guest books are full of accounts of the good times people were having up there.”
Jimmy also created walkways through the farm, planted a woodland habitat, and created a pond.
Ann opened the B&B in 1978 and it has thrived ever since.
Jimmy says: “Back then it was all word of mouth because there was no internet or booking engines.
“Ann’s home cooking was one of the reasons the customer base started to grow – she cooked breakfast and dinner for her guests every day and they loved it.
“Marita, our daughter, who now runs the B&B with her husband Ian, still uses her mother’s brown bread and scone recipe to this day – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
With the B&B doing so well, the Hennigans decided to get into the self-catering industry and renovated some run-down buildings on the farm.
“We did pretty much all the work ourselves, converting the old sheds, and we brought in a few workers to help,” says Jimmy. “One man, Sean Gallagher, came to our aid then, that’s 40 years ago and he’s still with us today. Since then he has been my right hand on the farm.”
The Hennigans always kept a few laying hens and Ann used the eggs for cooking and baking. This went down well with visitors, Jimmy says, especially those who didn’t have a farming background, as they enjoyed seeing where the ingredients for their food came from.
After receiving regular compliments on their farm-fresh eggs, the couple decided to further diversify and move into free-range egg production.
“The B&B was doing well, but Mum and Dad wanted to get the farm to a point where it was generating more income, so they bought 500 laying hens in the late ’80s,” says Michael.
“They converted one of the farm’s existing barns into accommodation for them and fenced in the house to allow the chickens to roam freely.
“Instead of bedding the chickens dry with sawdust like most people do, Dad put slatted frames in the coop.”
The Hennigans also built a registered egg packing and grading facility on the farm.
“The sorting machine they imported from France sorts the eggs by weight. Together with the residential complex, that was an enormous investment at the time,” says Michael.
Jimmy and Ann didn’t know there would be a market for their eggs when they started, but over 30 years later the business is still going strong.
“We had to create our own market,” says Jimmy. “Our first port of call was the shops and then the restaurants and thankfully from day one they have been very supportive and have taken us on board.
“We then went into wholesale and now supply supermarkets and shops across the west of Ireland.
“We also have a great local customer base and have done so for 30 years. We are very lucky.”
Michael, who took over in 2002 after studying agriculture, now keeps up to 10,000 layers after purchasing an adjacent farm and building a new free range egg facility.
“I’ve always had a great interest in the poultry side, which I enjoy,” he says.
“One of the biggest clouds on the horizon for the poultry industry, however, is bird flu. It’s monitored by the Ministry and they order lockdowns when it’s very bad.”
Marita and Ian have also been raising Christmas turkeys on the farm for the last few years with Michael and Richard’s help.
“We used to process turkeys and free range chickens, but now we only do Christmas turkeys – we keep 300-400 each year.
“We get them every year in September when they are five weeks old. Most people want a 14 to 16 pound turkey.
“We feed them corn and wheat and they’re out on grass.”
The hennigans used to slaughter on the farm, but now they send the turkeys to a local slaughterhouse instead.
“When we get them back, we put them straight into the cold storage room on the farm,” says Michael. “Then they’re sold straight from here – we’re fully registered with the HSE.”
The farm is also home to a flock of 400 sheep that Michael and Richard manage.
“We used to keep horned ewes, but we didn’t find them that profitable, so we made the switch,” says Michael.
“Now we mainly keep crossbred ewes like Suffolk, Belclare and Texels and dad still helps with them.
“It has always been a family business, where everyone helps when needed.”
“A commercial degree would have been a great help”
Was there bank financing?
Yes, and we’ve always found the banks very accommodating.
Were there grants?
Yes, we have received LEADER grants for the tourism side of the business and we have received a grant from the Local Enterprise Office for the small farm egg packing unit.
Did you have to register with a government agency?
You cannot keep poultry or pack eggs without being registered with the Ministry and we are registered with Bord Bia.
If you could turn back time, what would you do differently?
There is so much paperwork in business that you need to have a good financial head. A commercial degree would have been a great help.
What was your biggest challenge?
Covid was a challenge for the B&B as we had to close for a while.
Now it is the price of energy that affects the cost of producing the eggs. It is difficult to get our selling price to cover our production cost. I was at an energy conference and we are considering getting a bio digester or solar panels to lower the price of energy.
What are your biggest input costs in the company?
For the egg business, it’s feed, energy and the price of diesel. The price of everything has gone through the roof, it’s hard to know where it’s going to end up. For the B&B it is again the energy costs.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/agri-business/how-this-sligo-family-added-value-to-their-farm-with-tourism-and-eggs-42035135.html How this Sligo family boosted their farm with tourism and eggs