Padraic Gilligan: Reducing Stress on the Farm
In a recent study, the American Institute of Stress reported that 75% of today's employees believe that they have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. This stress has been amplified within the past year, especially for those in agriculture, as they have worked hard to maintain the global food supply chain. Padraic Gilligan of Gilligan’s Farm in Roscommon County, Ireland, joins us on the podcast to discuss some specific solutions he has implemented on his farm to de-stress his operation.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Padraic Gilligan hosted by Brian Lawless. Click below to hear the full audio.
Brian: Welcome to AgFuture, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of Plenty.
Do you feel stress? Are there certain activities, either at work or at home, that bring up specific fears or concerns? In a recent study, the American Institute of Stress reported that 75% of today's employees believe that they have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. This may be from a multitude of sources, but it begs the question: How do we reduce stress at work, especially as work continues from one generation to the next?
Well, today, we have an extremely helpful episode of the Ag Future podcast. I'm Brian Lawless, North American brand manager at Alltech, and I'm joined by Padraic Gilligan of Gilligan's Farm. Gilligan's Farm is an award-winning lamb and beef operation in Ireland with its own farm store and many customers throughout Dublin and the world. But like many of us, they feel stress both personally and in their business — yet within their family business, they’ve found multiple ways to reduce stress, and it's making a big difference. The question is: How, specifically, can Padraic and Gilligan's Farm work to de-stress their operation? What has this meant for their business? How can we take these lessons and apply them to de-stress our own lives and work? Padraic, welcome to the AgFuture Podcast.
Padraic: Thanks for having me. It's a great opportunity. Thanks very much.
Brian: I'm excited to have you. Before we dive into the topic of stress, which we'll get to, you've built a really fascinating business. Can you tell us a bit of the history of Gilligan's Farm and your role within the business?
Padraic: Yeah, I suppose. Gilligan's (has been) in operation for over a hundred years. My father started it back in 1911, and (it) has proceeded on over the years with stops and starts, good and bad. I reared animals on the farm. We have a great love for animals. When I sold animals, whether it be in a mart or factory, I always felt like — I like to sell myself to the public, to have a product that you could feel proud of. That's how I started the farm.
The stress part of it, it's been very stressful for the last six or seven months, especially with the COVID. It's very depressing for our farmers, especially here in Ireland — people who have been living on their own. The pubs are closed. We can't go for pints, and that has a big bearing on how people live and how they live their lives. People need to have fun along with work.
Brian: Yeah. Obviously, not being able to have a bite with some friends is no fun. Talking about your farm, what changes has Gilligan's Farm implemented to manage some of these new stresses with COVID-19? What's changed for you guys?
Padraic: What has changed? Lots of things have changed. With stress, animals are no different than humans. They get stressed. Our philosophy in that is to play music to the animals and to see them as well. With people, people have to have an outlet, have a bit of fun, try to lessen the stress factor of everyday living and just get them down. You have to open the drawer and deal with it and just close it and move on to the next drawer. That's how we are dealing with it — or my way of dealing with it.
Brian: Yeah. I do want to touch on the music for animals here in a bit. I guess you started talking about the business that you had. Your father started the farm. You've taken it over, and we're now moving on to the third generation, which would be your son, Alan. It seems like the first way you've looked to de-stress your business is just to have a proper succession plan. I guess, maybe, give us a little insight (into) how you've been preparing or maybe removing the stress for your son, Alan, to take over the business, or as he's been taking over the business.
Padraic: Well, I suppose it's funny. Look, if you're in business, it's stress-related. In the succession plan that I have to hand it all over to my son, which is — he's running the business and he has full control of it now. I'm taking a backseat. It's stressful for him because I have been in the business over the years, and of course, business has moved on. You have to be on top of it at all times to deal with it. He's probably saying sometimes, "Why would you let yourself in for all this huge workload?" In running a business — we have 22 people employed, and it takes management to do that. It is stressful, but you have to deal with it and not bring it home with you. Customers can be demanding. Ninety percent of them are very easy to deal with, and you've got the 10% that would be very finicky, and you have to deal with them as well. Do you know what I mean?
Brian: Yeah. I feel like you've touched on two really important things. It seems like you've actively taken a transition in your own job responsibilities, where you're now saying, "Hey, I was the one managing the farm. Now, I'm actively the one taking the backseat." I would assume, for Alan, that's made a world of difference, that it's not now having two people in charge. There's been a transition of responsibilities within the business. Then the second thing that I think you touched on was, in some ways, not taking what you do in your family life during the day, during business hours, and taking it home with you. I feel that that can just add to stress, when you have the same people that you could be dealing with at work that you're then at home with, and you're taking that stress from one place to the next.
Padraic: Absolutely. When you go home in the evening, you need to be chilled out. There's nothing better than listening to music or having a chat with the wife. All that is very important.
Brian: Yeah, sometimes it is. It's just those simple things. Maybe moving on, to the second way of de-stressing a business, really focusing on this concept of educating your customers in a very clear way. Some consumers are conscious about where their food comes from, but many aren't. I think that even applies to cuts of meat and to the opportunities that could be available to chefs. Gilligan's Farm prides itself on top-quality meat. If I understand correctly, you are a supplier to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and I read that you literally brought a lamb to him and showed him and his team the cuts. Now, I envision you walking into the restaurant with this entire lamb strapped to your back, but I'm guessing that's not the case. How did that relationship begin, and how did you educate Jamie and his team?
Padraic: He's one of the guys that we deal with that's running a restaurant in Dublin. He's one of those people that is a perfectionist and really loves the products that we give him, and it's direct off the farm. He has a big thing about that. He said to me one day, "Would it be possible to take a lamb in here just to show the staff where all the cuts come from? We'd cook it and test it and we'll invite people in." I was meant to do it. Yeah, I thought it was a great idea. I brought the lamb and the saw and the knife and went to the restaurant. We had good fun. They found it very interesting. The staff then could relate to the customer of the lamb, where it came from, all the different cuts of the lamb, from the best to the worst. It's good education for people — especially people (who) live in the cities, (who) don’t understand animals.
Brian: It seems like, within your business, there's this element of trust with the consumer. How important is consumer trust? How do you build that reputation and relationship with customers?
Padraic: Well, it's funny you should say that. I find that fascinating, because when I deal with someone in a restaurant that's a Michelin-star restaurant, the first thing I'd say to them (is), "This is a marriage. This is going to be a marriage. You have trust in me, and I have trust in you." We take it from there, but I suppose you can bring in ten pieces of meat (that are) absolutely mouthwatering, and if you bring in the eleventh bit that's not as good, you're breaking the trust.
It's a matter of consistency in your product. You're not 100%, or there's nobody that's 100%, but you definitely have to be over 95% consistent with the product. That builds the trust. As the customer, when you have a meal or have a steak and you say, "Yeah, that was a lovely steak. Where did that come from?" All of that builds a relationship, and that's what you should be looking for.
To produce such a high-quality product is vital. I suppose Pearse Lyons was very fond of — when he'd come to Ireland, he'd always buy our meat for his conferences. That's how I got to know Alltech. Alltech has done huge work for us here on the farm. They are always at the end of the phone and would advise on different ways to treat animals, the feed for animals and all that. All that's important. All that is the link in the chain to the end customer. Does that make sense?
Brian: Yeah. Speaking about links in the chain, I know Dr. Lyons was famous for wanting to (be able to) cut steaks with a spoon. Were you the man behind wanting to cut steaks with a spoon?
Padraic: Yes, I am. To be truthful about it, there was a video here on the farm going back a number of years ago. They wanted me to cook a steak at seven o'clock in the morning. I said, “Yeah, we better cook it in the house.” I got my wife up anyway. My wife said she's not taking any part in cooking the steak, but I proceeded to cook it anyway. I was thinking to myself, “Well, how can I make this different?” I just got the brainwave: “Would it be possible to cut a steak with a spoon?” I tried it and it worked. I said, “Yeah, let's go for it.” It's on the video, cutting a steak with a spoon. That is, I suppose, a reflection on the product that we have. Tender and tasty, I suppose, is the slogan that we always used.
Brian: Yeah, and Dr. Lyons was famous — he took that back to the U.S., and the late Dr. Pearse Lyons would show the quality of the steak by cutting it with a spoon. That's amazing.
Let's move into the third way to de-stress your business. You kind of touched on this a little bit when you talked about the animals and the music and just this theme of keeping your business fun and productive at the same time. I guess maybe my first question is — so, it's true that you constantly play music around the farm, and it's for the animals?
Padraic: Yeah. We have a system in the farm to play the music. I suppose it goes back to animals being stressed. Animals can get spooked or stressed very easily. It's all about not stressing animals, and this is why I started playing music to them. My mother, when she'd be milking the cows years ago, when I was a kid, she'd milk the cows by hand, and she'd always sing to the cows, and they'd always give more milk, so I said, “Why not play music to the animals?” We started playing music to animals, I suppose, maybe 15 years ago.
There are particular songs that we play to them. Percy French was the greatest Roscommon man, a great Irishman, and he wrote lots of songs. Some of them would be "The Mountains of Mourne" and "McBreen's Heifer," all those. The lyrics in all those songs are absolutely class and really becoming of playing music to the animals. If you Google "Percy French," Brendan O'Dowda sang his songs. He has a lovely, soft voice, and animals really love it. It's amazing. We use it here in the abattoir when the animals are being slaughtered. We play the same music to them in the abattoir here, which is adjacent to the farm. The abattoir is on the farm. We have full facilities on the farm to do from slaughter to dispatch in whatever form the customer wants it. It really adds to, I suppose, the stress levels in the meat.
Brian: Yeah. I peeked on the music charts in Ireland and there was one artist, Dermot Kennedy, that was very popular. There are also a bunch of global stars, like Justin Bieber, that are on the Irish charts right now. Have you found any music that the cows and the lambs do not like?
Padraic: I suppose we just have this Brendan O'Dowda, Percy French's songs with Brendan O'Dowda, and it just continuously plays. There are about maybe 20 songs in the list, and they just keep playing. I suppose the animals get familiar with the sounds and the different — the voice is the same with Brendan O'Dowda. I wouldn't like to be changing to different artists because their voices can be sharp or different. I feel that the animals wouldn't get as attached to it, if you know what I mean. It's a particular type of music.
Now, young people might say, "You're silly. This is not for real," but it is actually. It is. We had RT on the farm here and we were slaughtering the animals, and they couldn't get over the animals, how relaxed they were in the abattoir just before they were killed. There was no stress. It's completely different. It's amazing. Over a period of months, they're familiar with it and it's not spooking them.
Brian: Yeah, and it seems like this is something that has bled all the way into your relationships with the consumers and your customers, that there needs to be consistency of the final quality of the product and there needs to be consistency in the music or the rhythms for the animals themselves, to keep that going from beginning to end.
Padraic: Absolutely. If I brought in different music, like rock music or whatever, it would spook the animals. It wouldn't be common for them.
Brian: Yeah. Moving on to the fourth way to de-stress your business, it really revolves around taking care of your environment and, really, the whole supply chain. We know customers would like to be conscious of where their food comes from and not only how the animals are treated but the environment and how it can impact them. That's going to be a big challenge, and it's going to continue to be a big challenge, but I understand that Gilligan's Farm aims to be carbon neutral within ten years. Can you tell us a little bit about the plan? And probably just more importantly, why does this matter to you?
Padraic: Well, it matters. I have grandchildren, and I'd love to see them in (the) environments where I grew up, going back 70 years ago, where things on farms were very simple. For instance, if you go out and plough the land, you can see the worms. They're there visually. You can see them in the ground. I feel, over the years, that was lost with different ways of getting rid of slurry and all that, spreading those in the wrong times of the year, when the worms are, I suppose, coming up in the springtime of the year now.
I remember, going back years and years ago, when slurry was a new thing, and when you spread it, you'd see seagulls in the field the following morning. My God, it's an awful sight to see, because you have worms killed by the thousands, which is frightening, really. I suppose, over the years, we always used straw bedding for animals. We're bringing that back out on the land, and it's actually good for the nutrients and it's good for the clay and to bring the worms back. If we plough a field now, we see hundreds of worms in a small area. It's very rewarding when you see that.
I suppose, going back to your point, the environment has to be minded, especially now, because with the climate, it has really changed in Ireland. We're getting periods of really dry weather and periods of really wet weather, and that is very stressful — especially on farmers with crops, saving crops and all that. So, we have to respect the environment. We have a program now where we grow trees, hectares and hectares of trees, to enhance the carbon.
Brian: Yeah, so looking at the concept of how do we make sure we have nutrients in the soil, how do we make sure that we have even the basics, like worms in the soil, but then how do we look at things like planting trees and revitalizing or keeping carbon at the forefront of what's going on.
I really like what you said previously, though, because I think it wraps into this concept of succession that you're thinking of — "Hey, when I have my grandkids and my great-grandkids, I want to make sure the land works well for them." That's almost the first step in a succession plan where you're helping out your son, Alan, in his taking over of the business.
Padraic: The land will always be there to feed the people, and to have it in good shape, I think, is very important.
Brian: Yup. Finally, bringing this all to a close, I've been on your website. It's a beautiful website, by the way. The meat looks delicious. I saw just some of the cuts on there. It looks amazing. What website do people need to get to to buy the meat? How do they get access to this?
Padraic: We have a click-and-collect. We also do a door-to-door delivery in Dublin. We started this about six months ago, when the lockdown came. People in Dublin would be ringing and wondering could they get meat, so we started this online shop. It's actually very successful. Our biggest problem is deliveries. I'd be a stickler on doing the job ourselves, so we deliver ourselves. I know it's time-consuming, but when people order meat and they pay for it online, we deliver to them, and we make sure that they get it when they're supposed to get it.
Brian: Yeah. That's fantastic. Well, the website, I see here, is gilligansfarm.ie. You guys do deliver. You accept payment online. You do have an in-person store, but yeah, the challenge of delivery. COVID, in some ways, has really challenged us to be innovative, and it sounds like you guys are quickly adapting to the times and finding it challenging.
Padraic: You just have to change with the times. People like Jamie Oliver in Dublin — we supply Chapter One, all those places where people would be going there to eat, (and) all those restaurants were closed. Suddenly, those people that love our meat were ringing, wondering: where could they get it? This is how that started.
Brian: If there's an additional point of ways to de-stress, it certainly would be (to) change with the times. Be flexible. To sum up some of the things I've heard, I've heard, really, four specific ways to de-stress your business. The first would be have a succession plan, eliminating the fears of, "Does this all depend on me? What happens after I leave the business?" And you've put in that place with Alan, currently. The second thing seems to be (to) educate your customers clearly. If that means bringing the product to them, making sure they understand the value of it and how to handle it — particularly chefs and cooks — that's very important.
From the music end of things, the third way I heard to de-stress the business was keep your business fun and productive. It eliminates the concern of burnout. It keeps the animals consistent every day and keeps that consistent all the way from the farm to the fork, at the forefront of what's being done. Last but not least, de-stressing the business by taking care of your environment in the supply chain. You're just addressing concerns of, "Will there be enough resources? Can I look for my grandkids and great-grandkids to still have a good environment?" And just being part of the solution and not the problem.
Padraic: Yeah, that's it. Just play your part as you go along. That's it.
Brian: Padraic, you've given us a ton to think through. Really, I've been fascinated to talk to you and hear more about your business. Padraic, thank you for being on the AgFuture podcast.
Padraic: Thank you very much, and thank you for having us. It's a pleasure.
Brian: This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts and leave a review if you enjoyed this episode.