The Business of Modern Irish Farmers and Food Producers: Interview with Mags Kirwan of Goatsbridge Trout Farm

Kim Carroll

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GOATSBRIDGE TROUT FARM by Mags Kirwan
GOATSBRIDGE TROUT FARM by Mags Kirwan

“We were never known for our food until we told our story”

Goatsbridge Trout Farm in Kilkenny has origins which date back to 1180, where the monks of Jerpoint Abbey fished the waters of the Little Arrigle River deep in the heart of the Nore Valley.

In the 1960’s this water gave life to the creation of the farm’s first fish ponds by the Kirwan Family, the second generation of which has continued to develop it and has since added a state of the art processing and packaging facility to further ensure the quality of the fish produced on the farm. Terms like “processing” and “packaging” are verbs which lend themselves more to how convenience packaged fish fillets purchased at a supermarket might be produced, but this is no ordinary fish farm.

The farm filters natural water through its ponds in a slow true system, which follows a Danish model and safeguards the integrity of the water and the quality of the fish. A hydroponic system allows the soil above and around the pond to be at it most fertile, allowing for the growth of natural organic vegetation and herbs. The fishmeat produced is also 100 per cent organic, having not been tainted with any hormones, antibiotics or other chemicals. New ways to use the whole of the fish are being implemented, not least of which is trout caviar – formerly only harvested from the carp, and never before seen in Ireland.

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Businesswoman Mags Kirwan, lives and works on the farm with her husband and family to carry on the proud tradition of purity and sustainability. Speaking to Mags you get a sense of the driving force that she is behind the farm, and the overwhelming passion she has when it comes to being a modern food producer. Her fervor is adamant and uncompromising: “We have some of the cleanest waters and the greenest grass on the earth, we stand in the midst of one of the greatest natural larders in all the world and all this time we’ve just been giving it away for far less than it’s worth.”

For over a hundred years food has been one of Ireland’s most profitable exports. Last year alone, Irish food and drink exports hit €10.5 billion, having grown by 45 per cent since 2009. The strong performance, detailed in Bord Bia’s latest Export Performance and Prospects report, is all the more remarkable given that it took place against a backdrop of global recession.

Cow Pow Wow by John Dyer, Flick
Cow Pow Wow by John Dyer, Flick

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney stated that over the past five years agri-food exports grew at a rate ten times that of normal merchandise exports, making it “the most important part of our economy”. “Every parish in this country has a stake or a dividend in this growth” he added. The international market has come to see the value of our produce, and we at home must do the same.

Ireland’s eating habits have changed phenomenally since the introduction of large supermarkets, convenience dinners and fast food chains in the mid 1900’s, so much so that the Government is now threatening a “sugar-tax” based on the premise of a growing obesity crisis. The general public simply does not eat the natural food that our ancestors ate, indeed much of it would have escaped their recognition as edible. Much Like Mags Kirwan, hundreds of producers across the country have begun to recognize some of our indigenous foods which were previously thought to be quite ordinary, are actually incredibly special.

Food specialists have come to take Irish produce seriously on a global level. Irish butcher Pat Whelan recently won the Supreme Champion award for the best food product in the UK and Ireland for an item that hasn’t seen most Irish food tables since the 1960’s – beef dripping. It has been one of the greatest landmarks in the promotion of Irish food to date and is a clear example of how Irish food producers are looking to tradition to transform foodstuffs that the average Irish consumer wouldn’t even consider eating into specialty cuisine. He commented: “What strikes me in every conversation, is how nostalgic people get when talking about beef dripping. If I asked you to think of the most luxurious, most delicious, finest food imaginable, what would come to mind? Caviar, smoked salmon or maybe some dripping.”

The best chefs of our time have always recognised that the taste of the dish is lynch pinned upon the quality of the produce used. Chefs of leading Irish restaurants are now seeing the value of the integrity of the food that we as a nation produce and are beginning to integrate methods of cooking rooted in ancestry along with traditional foods which have been given a modern twist. They too have begun to brand themselves as Irish, telling the public not only what is special about them as cooks, but what is special about the food they are cooking.
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Mags gives the statistic that 96.4 per cent of all Irish businesses are classified as SME’s or small to medium enterprises. These businesses are unable to compete in terms of price with the multi-national corporations, but what needs to be emphasised in this case in terms of food is the difference between price and value. Arguably, it is difficult as a consumer to really understand the superiority of the produce which is home grown when we don’t have the opportunity to compare. After all, we are a country known for its importation of frozen chips, not our dairy. “All of our best is being shifted abroad for far more money than we are willing to pay. “ Mags emphasizes. “We are on the crest of a wave that is about to break into the global market in terms of selling our brand and selling our story. Which really is just about being true to ourselves, to our heritage and to being Irish.” she adds.

Market food 23 by Anne Carline, Flickr
Market food 23 by Anne Caroline, Flickr

Ireland is becoming a food destination for travelers across the globe, yet many of us still prefer to buy cheaper, imported produce, not realising the importance of supporting our own producers and enjoying the bounty of our own landscape. As our export figures grow, so does our fame.

In typical Irish fashion we are still refusing to accept the compliment.

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Kim Carroll