One-man co-op goes straight to consumer

On the evening I meet with Tomas Bruic, the mist is rolling in off the Atlantic, catching on the hills behind his farm.
One-man co-op goes straight to consumer

This is Baile Ghainin Beag in Baile Na nGall, West Kerry, 15 kilometres from Dingle town. The road up to Tomas’s farm is storm-damaged, almost eroded before I reach the yard.

During the recent local election campaign, Tomas told any canvassing politicians that whoever fixed the road would get his vote.

Now, the election has passed and Tomas has been on the phone, reminding the winner of his promise; fair is fair, after all.

Tomas was raised on a dairy farm in nearby Baile Ghainin Mhor.

He bought his place in 1982, while also working full-time for a German manufacturer in Dingle town. When Tomas bought the land, you couldn’t even drive up the road to it and the fields were nothing but piles of rock.

Having invested in a digger, he cleared the fields when not at the factory in Dingle, and, within a couple of years, had a working farm with very good land.

A river runs through the foot of the farm, providing well-drained soil and plenty of growth.

Today, he has a herd of 35 cows; Friesians mainly, but his son, Briain, aims for a pedigree-only Holstein herd.

They have introduced the pure-bred cows, and they are adapting well. The farm has become a diverse business.

Now a full-time farmer, Tomas produces three types of milk, a semi-hard cheese, buttermilk and three flavoured soft cheeses. He believes strongly in getting a return on the milk, not just what the creamery pays.

“You need to have something on the side and sell it at a good price, that’s where the premium is,” Tomas says with a lilt of experience to his voice. It wasn’t a straightforward path to the business he has today, but it never is.

Three of Tomas’s children had eczema and a touch of asthma, so goat’s milk was tried as a therapy. In the summer of 2002, the supplier was going on holiday and he gave the family a goat. This inspired Tomas to buy a few more goats and, soon, he had a herd of 30.

To learn how to make his cheese, Tomas did a Teagasc course in Co Clare. One of three men and 40 women under the tutelage of Eddie O’Neill, he came back from the month-long course determined to build the business.

Soon, the farm was selling goat’s milk and cheese.

It proved a success and the family began to supply fresh goat’s milk to local shops.

A dairy farmer at heart, Tomas began to increase his herd of cattle.

Though still fond of goats, Tomas found the cows far easier to manage. As he says, you can leave the cows out for the day and they’ll still be in the field by evening time. The goats, however, could be anywhere and, though he invested in extra electric fencing, the animals still wandered.

Handling both sets of animals proved too difficult and, gradually, the goat herd was phased out.

The fields of Baile Ghainin Beag give high yields of grass, mixed with various herbs and other flora. Milk from Tomas’s cows has a unique flavour that comes through in all the products.

When milk prices were low, Tomas started bottling his milk and selling it directly to shops on the Dingle Peninsula.

He put his cheese-making skills to work and made a semi-hard cheese, a popular seller. The salt air in his storage rooms grows a unique pinkish rind on the cheese, which makes it stand out on the shelves.

Demand grew and, soon, Tomas was getting the premium return on his milk to make his farm a proper business. As a father of nine children, five girls and four boys, Tomas knew more than most of the need to develop a farming business. Along with his wife, May, all of the children work at something on the farm.

That many hands comes in useful when there is much work to be done. In his office, Tomas showed me a just-delivered box of labels, ones with the new logo and in a range of colours for the different types of milk and cheese.

The idea is to make the product stand out and, with a standard logo, to give a brand continuity across the range.

With the milk and cheese selling well, Tomas wanted more ways to develop the business.

In April of 2013, he got a call from a Chris Maloney. Chris, from Queens, in New York, had just recently settled in Tralee with his family.

Chris had taken over an existing milk round, but was finding sales slow, as Kerry people prefer Kerry milk. Chris needed to find the local supplier, but he also wanted to bottle it in the traditional glass bottle.

Tomas, always open to new ideas, took immediately to Chris’s plan, liking the suggestion of the glass bottle. During last summer they sourced a suitable bottle and, by August, Chris was delivering it around Tralee.

The milk is pasteurised, but not homogenised, which appeals to those who want the farm fresh taste.

Each Monday and Thursday afternoon, Tomas drives a van full of bottled milk the 60 kilometres from his farm to Tralee.

There he transfers it to Chris’s refrigerated van, ready for delivery. In the early hours of Tuesday and Friday morning, Chris is on the round, dropping to the doors of customers.

He also collects the empties and this adds an environmental angle to the business. Chris reckons that upwards of 40,000 cartons a year are not going to landfill, due to the reuse of their glass bottles.

Tomas washes and sterilises the returns at his bottling plant, a tough job with which at least one of the family will help. Chris, the native New Yorker, and Tomas, the native West Kerryman, make a unique team.

They plan to add more products to the round; introducing the buttermilk and cheese is a priority.

These extra sales give Tomas a real boost in developing the business and he plans to double his herd. Farming on the west coast of Ireland has many hazards to go with the stunning scenery.

From Tomas Bruic’s office, he looks out on the Three Sisters, and the wild Atlantic beyond. Beautiful, but open to the elements, there are days here when the rain falls heavily and the wind seems to not stop blowing.

Each Monday and Thursday afternoon, Tomas drives a van full of glass bottled milk the 60 kilometres from his farm to Tralee.

Surviving the winter

This winter was one of the worst ever and Tomas Bruic got a real hammering.

The roof blew off a cattle shed and the family home lost many slates.

In another squall, the chimney was knocked off the boiler-house, and the following rainstorm destroyed the boiler.

During a later storm, the blocks holding down the remnants of the boiler-house roof were lifted and thrown through the roof of the bottling plant.

Chris described it as if Tomas was at war, such was the damage. Without the boiler, he couldn’t pasteurise, and production ground to a halt. They fought back though, and fresh milk was being bottled again within a few weeks.

Having a large family helped once more, “They all dug in,” says Tomas. Keeping the family involved is a crucial element in any plans for the future.

If the business can keep growing and provide sustainable employment for the children, Tomas would be very happy.

He plans to get the farm on the tourist trail, for visitors to see how a dairy farm works and to buy from the farm door. Last week he had a visit from UCC Food Science students, the first of many, it is hoped.

Tomas works at least a 12-hour day and has invested a lot in the family farm.

“You have to put it in to get it out,” he says with a smile.

If the local council would only repair his road, then that smile would be even wider.

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