June Feeny told her daughter as she prepared to marry Patrick Carmody, of Béal, Co Kerry, that dairy farmers should make their own cheese.
It was the start of a journey that has seen Kate, who grew up in Liverpool, develop a hobby into a business and convert a traditional dairy farm into organic production.
Béal Organic Cheese is today a well-recognised brand that has won six national and international honours, including silver and bronze medals, respectively, at the World Cheese Awards in Spain (2009) and Dublin (2008).
It is also widely known in Ireland after featuring on RTÉ’s “Dragon’s Den” TV programme.
A clinical biochemist and medical scientist, Kate came to Ireland in 1980 and worked in the health service.
“I married a dairy farmer and, rearing our four daughters, I developed a cheddar-style cheese which I christened Béal ,” she recalled.
Béal, a place of natural beauty at the mouth of the Shannon in north Kerry, was a ready-made brand name for her company.
“I first started making cheese in my new kitchen. I bought a small Irish-made stainless steel cheese vat and began studying the book that my mother gave me. At first, everything was a process of trial and error.
“Being a bio-chemist I tried to treat cheese-making as a pure science but, as with everything, it turned out to be a mixture of art and science.”
Sadly, her husband Patrick became ill and died. She had taken over the running of the farm and proceeded to put it into organic production. It achieved full organic status in 2000. Kate went down the organic route because as a scientist she was concerned about the use of chemical inputs in agriculture and their impact on the environment, people’s health and sustainability in general.
“I found it quite frightening,” she said, explaining that many people like herself also fear what chemicals are doing, and are turning to organic food production.
A former national chairperson of the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, she said she has no regrets about converting her farm to organic. It was a challenging but worthwhile process.
“Going organic is not an easy option but it is a very viable one if you are prepared to go about it slowly,” she said.
Kate, whose late father Max was a barrister and a judge, hopes to persuade other dairy farmers to adjust their thinking to look at the alternatives.
She urged them to go outside their comfort zone of having a field and being always able to throw out a bag of fertiliser or use chemicals to get rid of a problem.
Kate believes that in this age of recession, people are looking for value for money and many are going back to cooking their own food.
“What better food to cook than local, seasonal and organic food?” she asks.
Her mixed enterprise organic farm consists of 66 acres with another 38 rented.
The milk for her organic cheese comes from a herd of pedigree pure bred Holstein Friesian cows.
She also keeps pigs, hens, geese and ducks for her own household use.
She grows her own vegetables. Her half acre crop of organically-grown Santé potatoes proved resistant to the blight that took a toll on many conventionally grown varieties last year. “We were eating them all winter,” she said.
In April 2010, she made a pitch to the five “dragons” on Dragon’s Den.
She was successful and secured investment from Bobby Kerr and Niall O Farrell. She enjoyed the experience and secured valuable publicity for her cheese products
Kate, who is Kerry chairperson of both An Taisce and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, speaks with a passion about many issues.
But she is particularly passionate about the organic cheese she makes at Béal, an area she describes as “God’s own country”.
Set above a beach on the Kerry side of where the River Shannon meets the sea, Béal is a refreshing and inspiring location for organic farming and cheese making. Kate gets great satisfaction from turning a gallon of milk into a pound of cheese.
“It is hard work,” she says. “But as with all handmade cheese it is an individual work of art in its own right.”