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Food, fads and faith: all the flavours in Glenilen Farm’s super success story

June 1st, 2022 8:45 PM

By Emma Connolly

Valerie and Alan have made a huge success of their firm, from its modest beginnings on their Drimoleague farm. (Photo: Michael O’Sullivan /OSM Photo)

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ALAN and Valerie Kingston start their day, side-by side on their couch reading the bible and praying.

‘It’s very romantic,’ jokes Alan.

‘It’s the only time he turns off the phone!’adds his wife Valerie.

The couple run the hugely successful dairy food business Glenilen Farm, just outside Drimoleague.

Their business story is a very well told one. Starting out producing from their kitchen table in 1997 and selling at farmers markets in the area, they now manufacture 250,000 pots of yoghurt every week from their onsite factory and supply all the major supermarkets.

They employ over 50 people and have a projected end-of-year turnover of €10m.

What’s not so well known though, is the role they feel their faith has played in their success story.

In fact they don’t believe the business would even have come about if God hadn’t been part of their lives.

‘We don’t believe it would have happened if he hadn’t opened the doors, created the opportunities and brought us this far,’ said Valerie.

They’re both Born Again Christians, and have known each other since they were teens from camps and youth study groups in West Cork.

Valerie grew up between Macroom and Coachford. She’s originally Wolfe, whose father farmed at Ballyhilty Bridge in Skibbereen.

Alan grew up on the 60-acre farm where they live, and where their production facility is located.

Starting the day, praying and reading a bit of the bible, which is perched on the arm of the couch, for 10 or 15 minutes is, Valerie says, a real source of strength to her.

Having said that they are at pains to point out that they’re far from perfect, or ‘on another level.’

‘The last thing we want is for people to think of us as Holy Jo’s or say “those two think so much of themselves”,’ says Alan. ‘We’re far from perfect.’

But having a ‘relationship with the creator of the world’ gives them confidence.

‘It’s based on love, it’s not about being good and hoping to earn your place, it’s accepting a free gift, believing that gift is there for me to claim, and keeping in touch with God through his word,’ explains Valerie.

Alan feels that it’s ‘a real pity in Ireland that we’ve totally gone away from faith in all denominations and backgrounds.’

‘We just really feel we need to have a compass, we need to have some fear, even a fear of God, there’s no fear of anything anymore, people are doing what they want to do.’

Valerie says: ‘It’s nearly taboo now to talk about God…there’s a lot of spirituality around at the moment…that’s cool and trendy, but it doesn’t involve a relationship with God,’ she said.

Their three children (the youngest is in Leaving Cert) share their parents’ faith.

‘Thankfully it’s important to them which is wonderful. They’ve grown up with a cohort of cousins who were brought up in a similar way and they encourage each other. But it really is like swimming against the tide in the current climate for our kids, living with a Christian ethos and principles,’ said Valerie.

The couple’s core business focus is to produce clean simple uncomplicated products, which they’ve done with their range of yoghurts, cheese cakes, butter, cream and lemonade.

But because of consumer demand they’re also using yoghurt as a conduit for other functional foods and recently launched a kefir yoghurt, which has been a huge success.

Kefir is a culture that research has shown helps to boost your gut health.

Food science graduate Valerie explains: ‘We all have bugs in our tummy which weigh more than our brain, there’s more genetic material in them than in your whole body.

‘They’re responsible for manufacturing tryptophan, needed to make serotonin which regulates mood, appetite and wellbeing.

‘There’s nothing you can eat to boost tryptophan, it has to be made by these bugs in your tummy. You have to look after them, and you do that by eating fermented foods and fibre. We can put good bugs from the kefir into our yoghurt and these are the good healthy bugs your tummy needs.’

They buy in the kefir cultures in sachets and add them to an 8,000L vat of warm milk.

‘It’s left overnight and voilà, you have kefir the next day,’ said Valerie.

The product is already looking to account for 10-12% of annual sales, far bigger than they originally thought.

‘But through it all we want to maintain the simplicity of what we do. The more function you bring into your products the more processing there is, the more  ingredients you’re putting in and that’s probably our biggest challenge at the moment,’ said Alan. ‘It’s about maintaining the ethos of the company in terms of being clean, simple and healthy, and also meeting demands of the consumer.’

Fads, they admit, can be frustrating, often driven by influencers, or people who don’t have scientific knowledge.

Valerie name checks the Happy Pear twins who experienced a backlash after posting a video online suggesting ways to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer through diet, which experts said was factually incorrect.

‘We went through the zero fat milk phase, reducing sugar and now it’s about protein. We’re passionate about producing good wholesome food and we’ll do as much as we can to promote the healthiness of our product and being honest and transparent about it,’ added Valerie.

The couple also feel strongly that farmers need to be properly paid for the food they produce.

At the other end of the scale, they see the reality of people struggling to put food on the table through their involvement with the Drimoleague Food Bank.

They were part of the group who set it up around a year ago.

They admit they initially had reservations if there would be enough demand for it, but between 25 to 30 families avail of it each week from Skibbereen, Bantry, and Dunmanway.

Alan no longer milks on the family farm – Aidan O’Donovan bought the herd and rents the farm. He misses it, but made the decision to focus on the business.

‘There are so many really good farmers out there all producing good quality milk.

‘I just felt the quality of the ingredient is there, I’m not going to produce anything better than anyone else and I felt I was better off concentrating on the business,’ he said.

Their youngest son Ben is doing his Leaving Cert this year; Grace has finished her first year of International Development in UCC and Sally is a qualified Occupational Therapist in Wales.

For the moment, the couple  say, they all ‘want to do their own thing.’

‘It’s almost in our remit to nearly try to push them in other directions. You would just need to be very passionate about a business like this,’ says Alan.

Looking back now, they wonder, how they did it all.

Alan tells a funny story of working around the clock when Valerie was in hospital having Grace.

‘I went up to collect her from the Erinville and she drove down and I slept in the car!’  Valerie adds: ‘If, 20 years ago, I had seen what we have now I would have panicked and ran!

‘It all happened accidentally with very slow steps.’

Importantly, they enjoy what they do.

‘It is hard work,’ says Alan. ‘But work isn’t always work when you’re enjoying it, when there’s a bit of adrenaline and you’re pushing it on.’

Valerie also keeps chickens and right now is trying her hand at bee keeping.

On the way out I spot a swing chair in a greenhouse. Referring to RTÉ’s Home of the Year, she says it’s ‘where you’ll find the red disc. It’s my favourite spot.’

For a couple at the helm of a business, managing a staff of 50, at a time of soaring energy costs and negotiating all the challenges that entails, they seem to radiate calmness and joy.

Maybe, Valerie says, it’s because she believes in eternal life.

‘I know I’m just passing through,’ she says.

‘And making yoghurt while you’re doing it!’ Alan adds.

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