Ducking out of mainstream farming

THE land Eugene and Helena Hickey farm on the edge of Roaring Water Bay in West Cork is shaped by nature and touched by the Atlantic air.

It is a wholesome and fresh environment and a good place in which to produce and process ducks in a growing agri-business enterprise and run a 70-cow herd that produces milk for Drinagh Co-op.

When Eugene married Helena, a nurse and midwife from Clonakilty, in 1990, they figured the 130-acre dairy farm at Skeaghanore East, Ballydehob, would not be enough to provide a good income for a family.

They looked at options including tourism and off-farm employment but decided to stay with the land and diversify into ducks while continuing with dairy farming, the core agri-business in the community.

Earlier this month, that decision was hailed in a most unexpected way when their oak-smoked breast of duck was chosen for three ‘Oscars’ at the Blas na hÉireann-Irish National Food Awards in Dingle, Co Kerry. The product, smoked by Polish butcher, Mariusz Lampart, in Little Island, Cork, won the best artisan producer award for the Hickeys.

It also won a category gold medal and a chef’s choice award to make it a memorable occasion for the West Cork couple.

Helena, who gave up nursing when her first child was born, and Eugene, travelled to Dingle knowing their product was shortlisted.

“We were never shortlisted before, and we were delighted when it was announced we had won the awards.

“It is always a great recognition when people buy and consume our products. But winning the Blas na hÉireaan awards was special, especially in view of all the work we have put into the business,” she said.

That journey began in 1994 when the Hickeys converted old farmyard sheds to house the ducks and build a processing unit.

Working closely with Teagasc poultry specialist Maura McLaughlin, and Cork County Council vet Dan Crowley, they focused from the start on producing quality ducks in good housing conditions.

They started with 30 ducks, sold them door to door and with the held of Leader funding developed modern processing and handing facilities as demand and output increased.

Helena recalls how they got a great encouragement from the reception they received when they called to restaurants with the finished ducks.

Marketing was by word of mouth and demand for the product increased, she said, paying tribute to the ongoing work of the staff and the team effort.

Skeaghmore West Cork Duck has earned a reputation for succulent flavour and texture and is now available in supermarkets and butchers shops in Munster and in other parts of the country including Dublin.

It is featured on restaurant menus and, courtesy of O’Sullivan’s Poultry, it was included in the hamper of quality Irish food presented to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the English Market in Cork City.

All of the ducks are hand reared, and are fed a 100% natural cereal-based diet, without any preservatives, flavourings or growth promoters.

“We are committed to environmental management, eco-friendly packaging, recycling and animal welfare,” said Helena.

The Hickeys produce between 400 and 500 ducks a week, depending on the season, and are now examining the feasibility of a new processing unit. Their product range includes every part of the duck.

Eugene and Helena have five children, Daniel, 21, who is studying agricultural science at Cork Institute of Technology, Clara, 19, a CIT student of culinary arts and marketing, Lisa, 15, Joseph, 14, and Eoghan, 12.

The family has been involved from the start with the West Cork regional brand, Fuchsia, launched in 1998 to enable local food and tourism businesses to develop the competitive advantage offered by a strong regional identity. Fuchsia represents a symbol of quality for food and tourism.

High standards of product and service excellence reflect passion and enthusiasm and a strong commitment to training, networking and a code of best practice.

The success of the Hickeys’ business at the awards is also a big marketing boost for the Ballydehob enterprise and further raises the profile of its products. Blas aims to recognise passionate, dedicated producers who create high-quality food and drinks and who are serious about marketing their products at home and abroad.

Chairman of the Blas Awards Artie Clifford said this year’s awards had a record number of over 2,000 entries in 80 categories making it the most competitive ever.

It was also the biggest competition of Irish produce ever seen in Ireland, with every county represented.

“Winning at Blas means double-digit growth for some producers, particularly those who use the Blas quality mark.

“We know from research that not only is the symbol widely recognised by shoppers, it also encourages them to buy products that carry the Blas accreditation.

“It is their guarantee of top class quality,” he said.

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