Leitrim couple Michael and Yvonne McManus started using farm well water to create a range of natural skin care products.
it has been “bubbling” with sulphurous water for as long as Michael can remember on the couple’s 180ac organic suckling farm in Carrick-on-Shannon.
“Before modern medicine was a thing, sulfur water was used to treat a number of ailments,” Michael said.
“I remember when I was a child, there were people who called the farm to bathe in our farm water, and they still do to this day.
“Sulfur has been shown to stimulate collagen production and cell renewal in the skin, and people say it’s simply good for mental well-being.
“My uncle never bathed at home, he always bathed in the well instead of bathing, because he believed that the sulphurous water there was better for you than other waters.”
Three years ago, when farm callers became more frequent, the couple explored how they could share water more widely.
“We knew how good it was for the skin and decided to go the skincare route,” says Michael. “But the first thing we had to do was test the water to make sure there were no chemicals or bacteria.”
Michael and Yvonne tested the water every week for a year and each time it was free of chemicals and bacteria.
Collecting water worried the couple because they didn’t want to disturb the dairy farm in any way.
“Keeping the farm as natural and intact as possible was always key to us, so through a geological survey, we followed the fishbowl (which is an underground river or lake) back to the original well in the historic area on the farm. “Mikayil explains.
“We went down 300 feet and put a pump to draw the water out of the well. Later, the water could be collected from there in sterilized containers.”
Yvonne says that while sulfur water is unusual, it’s unmistakable when you’re close to it because of the smell.
“You can smell the sulfur before you get to the well,” he says. “It has a strong egg smell.”
The couple initially considered setting up a skin care manufacturing unit, but decided against it for the sake of the economy.
“We didn’t want to disrupt the nature of the land, the habitats or the natural biodiversity in any way, and setting up a manufacturing facility would do that,” Yvonne said.
“So we decided to outsource manufacturing after researching the skincare market and deciding what ingredients and properties we wanted to use.
“It was very important for us to be able to use the water completely without treatment, so that all the natural goodness is still there, and to be able to use water at a high level, because that’s the component we really wanted to showcase.”
After three years of trial and testing, Spa Cottage skin care was launched last week at the National Plowing Championships. Their products will normally sell for €60.
“We have a day cream, a night cream and a serum, and it’s out the door for us at Ploughing,” says Michael.
“We were amazed by the response of the village community. We had customers of all ages. We were surprised at the number of ordinary farmers who were crazy enough to give it a go.”
Michael became a Farming for Nature ambassador last year after being nominated by local Leitrim farmers.
Michael, who converted the farm to eco-friendly in 2016, says he and Yvonne have always “had an ethos of keeping things as close to nature as possible.”
Before going organic, they kept about 100 suckling cattle.
“We now only keep 38-40 head of cattle,” says Michael. “We don’t care what gender they are, that’s really the measure for us.
“We grow them ourselves and store up to 500kg and then sell them at the local organic market in Drumshanbo, just five miles from us.
“If you look back, traditionally cattle breeds were smaller, so instead of constantly growing them and increasing their size, we have what you call three-quarter cows in Leitrim.
“That means we don’t need as much input.”
They finish off their cattle with “minimal amounts of food,” and Michael says it works perfectly with smaller numbers.
“Even though we have 180ac, in an organic system I would never exceed 38-40 head of cattle. We are at that point now and I even plan to buy less for the winter. I currently have cattle available for sale.
“When dealing with economics, it doesn’t make sense to have big numbers in our type of economy. It would be very expensive.”
The McManus’ land is divided into three sections and they operate a large rotational grazing system whereby cattle are moved around the farm throughout the year depending on their stage of growth and the vegetation that is growing at that time.
“We use a system of moving the cattle in large shifts because the farm is not all in one place,” says Michael.
“A lot of people would balk at that, but we appreciate it because the cattle are exposed to different vegetation and minerals that way.
“We have some stony soil and some limestone and the cattle benefit from the calcium in some parts of the soil and the plant growth in others.
“Our rotation system is big, but it works for us.”
Although the couple’s cattle are kept outdoors for most of the year, they are ‘dry bedded’ using tufts that grow naturally on the farm.
“We used to import hay and spread our straw, but since going organic we have a completely different system and now we use our rushes,” Michael said. “We use them for bedding and we’ve found them to be great.
“I think farmers should be more confident in their natural farming abilities and not be afraid to use readily available products in their farms and ranches.
“Being a good farmer isn’t about how many cattle you have, it’s about how you manage your farm, both in terms of livestock and in terms of the environment.”
Q&A: ‘It took us three years… diversifying your farm takes time, no matter how you do it’
Was financing easily available from banks?
We did not seek bank financing. We financed it through the sale of cattle, which in turn added value to the farm.
Was grant aid available?
We received a grant from LEADER and without it we could not do what we do.
How long did it take to get the business off the ground?
It took three years of fairly steady work to get to where we are now – the launch phase.
The past year has been full of putting the finishing touches. Diversifying your farm, no matter which way you do it, takes time.
Did you find organs that were particularly helpful?
The people at Leitrim LEADER were great, they gave us great advice. The LEADER process is not the easiest process, but it is made easier by having good support.
Do you need a special license?
Our products have to go through the same safety testing as any other Irish cosmetics and this is done through the company that manufactures them for us.
Testing is another reason we don’t want to produce from our farm – it adds another dimension and we thought it would be easier to outsource that responsibility.
What advice would you give to anyone considering diversifying?
One thing we didn’t appreciate was the copyright cost of our products. If you are doing something like this to sell, you should get legal advice.
All of our products are registered in most countries around the world – we see the international market as a huge opportunity as well as the domestic market. There are no other sulfur water products in either market.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Covid really stopped us from starting up, so we lost about two years of business. We were ready to go as soon as we hit it.