‘Our whole year builds up to Christmas – it’s our silage season’ – Tipperary based pork and poultry business gear up for busiest period.
The four brothers who run Crowe’s Farm, a Tipperary based pork and poultry producing business, start planning for the festive season in January. They explain how the market and customer buying patterns have changed for turkey and ham over the years, and how their firm has evolved to meet the different demands
Christmas is the ‘silage season’ for companies such as Crowe’s Farm, the Tipperary-based pig and poultry producers. But, according to TJ Crowe, one of three brothers running the family business, along with their mother Mary, it’s not until the New Year you can relax.
“I don’t relax until after New Year’s. It’s an anxious time of the year when you’re in business – you’ve put a lot of stuff out there and Christmas dinner is the one meal people remember.
“We have to put a lot of effort into Christmas, especially the last week before. No matter what you do, it’s getting up at stupid o’clock and getting the last orders out to shops, while people are coming to the shop here to collect their hams and turkeys right up till the day before Christmas Eve.
“Christmas is a funny time. It starts in January, with us planning around what worked and sold.
“Everyone in foodservice and retailers are busy and we literally spend the whole year gearing up for Christmas. We spend January thinking of Christmas and discussing it around the boardroom.
“The boardroom is sitting around my mother’s table with a cup of tea. It might not be the most corporate boardroom in the world but we discuss what we did and if we did it right or wrong. That’s what we’ll be doing in January. The day-to-day business all leads to Christmas.”
TJ has been working in the family business in Dundrum, South Tipperary, for 25 years, alongside his brothers John Paul, Ned and Patrick. Their parents’ farm evolved in the 1970s from slaughtering pigs and curing bacon into rearing pigs and turkeys, the latter of which is the main stay of the farming operation today.
“We only stopped slaughtering four or five years ago. Small abbatoirs are difficult and we didn’t have enough space for it anymore. We’d have had to build a completely new facility and we have one for onsite but it’s only for the turkeys.”
“Today, we do a lot of ham for Christmas, across a lot of different sizes, but we will cure ham again between Christmas day and the New Year as people don’t equate the big ham on Christmas day and the smaller ham. That smaller ham is an everyday product that people like. They buy it right up till Christmas, maybe take a break for a week or two leading into Christmas but when the big ham is gone they are buying it again.
“I see a lot of ham but I still look forward to the turkey and ham at Christmas.”
TJ’s involvement in the farm happened when his late father John had a stroke just before TJ was due to sit his Leaving Cert.
“He was the boss of the company and while I didn’t have much interest in my leaving cert I went to college and studied meat management in DIT Mountjoy Square for two years. My father told me to enjoy it, that there was a lot to be done here.”
TJ was the first to return home, before Ned who was butchering in a meat factory also came home to the family business, followed by Patrick who also works on the meat-side of the business and John Paul who runs the farm, while their mother Mary is still involved in the business.
“We’re still a small family business. We have about 20 working here, producing two ranges – the Crowes farm brand and J Crowe and sons. The pork is sourced from Stauntons in Timologue and we cure it and put it on the supermarket shelves.
“We try to support the Irish pig industry forever as we were in it in the 1980s and we have strong roots in it.”
The ham is cured in brine for three days, before sitting for another couple of days when it is then dried, portioned and packed. Today, the company produces a wide range of products, which TJ says has been helped by a more diverse consumer.
Mary Crowe with her four sons, sitting John Paul and TJ and standing Patrick and Ned, who all work in the family business
“The pig is a very diverse animal and you have a massive range of products off a pig which is great, everything from pigs ears and trotters has a customer.
“We have so many nationalities in the country, we have people buying the bones or trotters, others such as eastern europeans love shoulder meat, ribs, hocks and the feet. They make gelatine out of it. Our shop’s customers based is about 50pc is eastern european, they like the fresh pork and those cuts.
“The Irish consumer loves bacon, but they are not putting a half pig into the freezer anymore, they get the cuts they want. But the shoulder of back bacon and collar are nearly gone, compared to what they were 25 years ago.
“Pork belly though is now omnipresent on every menu and then you have ham. Ham is ham, but the pack sizes have got smaller. We are catering to one and two people houses four just one dinner. Before it was bacon for three or four dinners, I see it myself you only put down enough for one or two dinners, as you are away the next day maybe, and people plan for that and we have to adjust our pack sizes. You would not sell a pound of rashers anymore, you sell 200g – people want to open the packet and use it straight away.”
The farm shop, he says, is nearly a nod back to when people came in when they didn’t have a shop. “In my father’s time people came and bought a side of bacon and put it into the deep freeze, so we put in a small shop, as people continued to come. Nowadays, people ring and say can you look up what I got last year and we’ll take the same again.”
Changing consumer demands down through the years means the company has to change its product offering in turn.
The farm moved into turkeys around 12 years ago as an add-on for Christmas but it has turned into a year-round farming enterprise for the Crowes.
“There is a demand for turkey all year round as there’s a perception it’s a healthier lean protein and they buy it all year around.”
However, the ‘million-dollar question’ though is how much will they pay, he says.
“We did organic pork for a few years but it was a lot more expensive and it was hard to get traction on it. People might trade up at Christmas but in the weekly shop not so much and we have to keep the factory open.”
Some 80pc of their product is sold in retailers, he says, with the rest into restaurants, but it’s a business that has grown by word of mouth for the most part.
“We were supplying a lot around Tipperary and we didn’t grow much beyond it. Then I was on the radio one day and and a retailer in Dublin rang me and said do you supply Dublin and I said ‘no, I have no customers in Dublin’ and he said if the order was big enough would I..we talked and I’m still supplying him and others in Dublin.”
The Dioxin crisis of 2008, which saw an international recall of Irish pork products, meant smaller producers such as Crowes were able to get back onto shelves quicker.
“We were doing everything on site and I happened to get two minutes on the Late Late Show (during the crisis) and the phone started hopping. Things grew from there then and we have built up strong customer relationships with the main retailers.”
One of the key lessons TJ says he’s learnt down through the years is getting better at saying ‘no’.
“I often feel like a busy fool, but you can become very busy doing stuff that is not really making you money, you are just doing it for the sake of doing it.
“There’s loads of places and markets we tried that didn’t work, even products that didn’t work.
“We made sausages years ago and we don’t do that anymore. The process jusr didn’t fit into our factory anymore, so someone makes them for us and that works really well for us.
“Now, if it’s not part of the core business and I don’t see a growth prospect, and it’s going to impact how we do things day to day you have to question it. Everyone’s resources are stretched. We don’t have oceans of fridge space or production machinery. So, if it’s going to be something totally different to what we are doing, we might have taken it on before, now we don’t jump in with two feet but instead dip a toe in. Is that maturity or getting lazy?
“There are four of us working in the yard and we all have families. You don’t need to be working every hour of the day, you have to have a life too.”
This articles was published in the Irish Independent Tuesday Dec 12 2023