‘We learnt being free range was in the breeding and not just the life an animal led’

There are many differences between today’s farms and those of 30 years ago.

As I walked around Rigneys Farm, however, it was a similarity more than any difference that struck me.

Here, ducks were quacking, hens clucking, geese giving out, and bonhams squealing.

Though a smallholding, this 14-acre farm would outdo any modern, large scale operation — on the sound levels alone.

And what makes the story even more interesting is that this Co Limerick farm is less than 15 years old.

In the late 1990s, Joe and Caroline Rigney had a 700 square foot home in Celbridge, Co Kildare.

They wanted to live in the country, and were looking for a plot to buy.

Joe had grown up on a small farm in Co Westmeath; Caroline had been raised in the countryside, though not on a farm.

When they found nothing after a few months, Joe’s brother told them to have a look at Co Limerick.

The Rigneys came down, stayed with the brother, and began to search, but without any luck.

On the day they were returning to Kildare, a call came from a local auctioneer.

A piece of land had come in to be listed; the auctioneer hadn’t seen it, but gave them directions.

The elevated 14-acre plot at Kilcornan, Curraghchase, south facing and with stone wall boundaries, was perfect.

There was nothing on the land, except for a few horses and a water trough.

A deal was made, and they had planning permission within two months.

On May 1, 1999, Joe laid the foundations for the house, and began to build the two-storey garage.

For the summer, he worked on the garage, as it was to be their home while the main house was being built.

For nearly a year, they lived in the garage, and moved into the house just before it was finished.

Caroline ran the home while Joe found plenty of work as a stone mason.

The fields were cleared of stones and ragwort; doing it by hand was slow, but it helped develop their feel for their land. In 2001, a local farmer rented the land, keeping cattle on it.

Shortly afterwards, foot and mouth struck; and with a ban on the movement of live animals, the cattle stayed longer than planned.

In the herd was a pedigree Shorthorn named Princess.

Because she was different, she was easy to keep an eye on, and Caroline fell in love.

It was a passion for rare breeds that has stayed with Caroline ever since.

When the cattle were eventually to be taken away, she bought Princess from the farmer. He took her back to his own yard for testing, only for Princess to return with a calf at foot, and pregnant too.

“Before we knew where we were, we had three cows,” says Caroline, with the air of an assured farmer.

The Rigneys had begun their farm. They added the hens, the ducks and the geese, rare breeds all.

Joe and Caroline were learning farm husbandry on the job, but saw a uniqueness in the rare breeds that would define the way they farmed.

Two pigs were bought in 2004. Caroline didn’t know what the breed was, only that they were unusual looking, and not a commercial breed.

Unable to find information anywhere on rearing free-range, rare breed pigs, she rang Dublin Zoo, in desperation. Director Leo Oosterweghel took the call, and gave some great advice.

When the time came to slaughter the two pigs, the couple were delighted with the quality of the meat.

They bought two more pigs, but this time of a commercial breed. Immediately they noticed a difference.

“The poor things were institutionalised,” says Joe, “it took them a week in the paddock to realise what their house was for.”

The Rigneys were learning that being free range was in the breeding, and not just the life an animal led.

In early 2006, Dublin Zoo rang, saying that they were looking for a home for their pedigree Tamworth pigs.

The Rigneys drove to Dublin with a trailer on the hitch, returning with two sows and a boar.

The love affair with Tamworths began. Caroline discovered that, though bred in England, Tamworths were originally an Irish breed, taken to Suffolk by Robert Peel.

From her research, she learned how to raise them, what to expect from them, and how to get the best from the breed. When the time came to slaughter her two commercial pigs, Caroline also sent one of the Tamworths. They processed the meat, and the Tamworth was streets ahead on all fronts. “They were raised the same, fed the same, and slaughtered the same, but there was a massive difference in the meat,” adds Caroline, “a massive difference.”

Now the Rigneys knew that food produced from their own, free-range, rare breed animals was something different. Caroline and Joe could concentrate on quality over quantity, to get a superior product.

More sows were bought, and free-range paddocks laid on the land for them. By doing a start-your-own-business course, and a separate one on culinary skills, Caroline studied how to develop a successful living from the farm.

The Rigneys opened a B&B in 2005. This gave them a side income before they got to full farm production, and it has now become an integral part of the operation. Paddy Ward at the Teagasc Food Research Centre developed a bespoke food course for Caroline.

As she says, it was mayhem at times, running a farm, the B&B, raising the kids, and learning in her own kitchen what to do with the slaughtered meat.

The first sausages she produced were gorgeous. With a big investment, the garage in which they had lived was converted to a processing unit. They were spending a lot of money without yet making any in return, but Caroline was confident she had a winning product. By April 2007, the unit was in operation with a line of sausages, rashers, hams, beef-burgers, and black and white puddings. Less than a year later, in 2008, Caroline’s rashers won the three-star gold medal at the prestigious Great Taste Awards in London.

Today, they have a working farm with many awards. The cattle are exclusively pasture fed, getting only hay when the grass stops growing in the colder months. They are never housed over the winter, but take up residence in the grove of trees towards the rear of the farm. The pigs roam free in their paddocks, and when one is out of use, Joe runs the harrow over the land. A mix of grass, kale, barley and other spare seeds is sown, giving the pigs a great variety of food to snuffle in when they return. At full production, there may be up to 50 pigs in the paddocks; five sows and the one boar keep the supply steady.

“Pumbaa is the man with five wives, the poor misfortunate,” laughs Joe, though when I see him in his paddock, he doesn’t look too worried.

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