Our multi-million euro business started with two pots of milk 

As the Leaving Certificate gets underway today CHRIS DUNNE talks to Valerie Kingston, who repeated the state exam twice, ended up with the same points and reluctantly started a science course — but is now running a multi-million euro food production business
Our multi-million euro business started with two pots of milk 
Alan and Valerie Kingston of Glenilen.

IF you don’t get your first choice on your CAO form, fear not, it isn’t the end of the world — because some day you could be running a multi-million euro business, like Valerie Kingston of Glenilen Farm in West Cork.

“I worked very hard for my inter-cert at school and I was very pleased with my results,” says Valerie, who is a mum to Sally, Grace and Ben.

“I thought things would be that easy doing my Leaving Cert in 1987. When I didn’t get my first choice, physiotherapy at UCC, I was gutted

“I bawled my eyes out. I was offered Science which was way down the list on my CAO form.”

Valerie, who attended school at the local convent in Macroom and then Ashton, Cork, tried again.

“I repeated the Leaving Cert,” says Valerie.

“And I got the exact same number of points again!”

She was offered the same course in UCC again.

“Rather reluctantly, I decided to get on with it,” she says.

“I wanted to go to Dublin, spread my wings, and not stay in Cork. I had no idea what I’d get out of the Science course or what job I could get out of it. It was my only option; the consolation prize.”

There was another plus.

“At least a good pal of mine was renting accommodation in Cork! I could stay with her.”

Valerie found the first year in UCC studying First Science hard enough.

“We had to make a decision what to study the following year. So I chose Food Science and Technology,” says Valerie.

“I thought that area might be more interesting for me. But I still had no idea where my degree might me lead to.”

When Valerie had her Food Science and Technology degree in her back pocket, she now had a passport to travel the world, and she thought the world was her oyster.

“But I got offered a job with Dairygold in Mitchelstown!” says Valerie.

“I was looking forward to a gap year to do some travelling. I was delighted to get the offer of a job though. I knew working with Dairygold was a valuable way to gain great experience.

“Working in the whey plant and in process development set me up for my future enterprise. I didn’t know that then!”

There was one drawback.

“It was still in Co. Cork!” says Valerie, who had the travel bug.

Somebody else had the love bug. Alan Kingston was a farmer from Drimoleague, West Cork.

“I knew Alan since we were teenagers,” says Valerie.

Both Valerie and Alan are members of the Methodist community. They had more in common.

“I grew up on a dairy farm too,” says Valerie. “So I knew what the lifestyle was like on a farm.”

Even though things between the couple were serious, Valerie wanted to see what life was like in faraway fields.

“I decided to get the travel bug out of my system,” she says. “It was my last chance. And I volunteered overseas when a vacancy arose to work on a dairy development project.

“So I headed to West Africa, to a place called Burkina Faso where I spent two years. It was a fantastic experience, but I was eager to get back home when I had done my stint.”

Alan and Valerie Kingston, owners of Glenilen Farm.
Alan and Valerie Kingston, owners of Glenilen Farm.

Alan was obviously smitten.

“He waited for me,” Valerie says.

“I came back from West Africa in March, 1997, and we got married that September.”

Was Valerie content to settle down and be a farmer’s wife in West Cork, after going to college in the city and travelling abroad to work?

“If we had a family I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum,” she explains.

Valerie, who had begun developing products on a small scale in West Africa, took in her new surroundings.

“There were 50 acres and 50 Holstein Friesian cows.”

And there was one good idea.

The farm-house kitchen could be turned into a mini food laboratory, couldn’t it?

“With milk from the farm; I began to experiment, making different dairy products,” says Valerie.

She decided to invest.

“I went to Roches Stores and bought two good saucepans,” says Valerie.

She decided to expand.

“Blarney Farmers’ Market was buzzing,” says Valerie.

“Farmers’ markets were still in their infancy.

“I brought my yogurt and cheesecake to sell at the market and the feedback I got there was very positive. People wanted to sample wholesome foods free from additives.”

Alan wasn’t too impressed. Yet.

“He couldn’t imagine standing under an umbrella with all the neighbours and neighbouring farmers passing, while he was at the stall waiting for custom at the market!” says Valerie.

“He dreaded the thought of it.”

Alan had another thought.

“He thought that he had married quite the hippie!”

But then she made a profit.

“One bank holiday, I came home from the Farmers’ Market and I totted up my takings in my book,” says Valerie.

“From two saucepans of milk, I had made £120!”

Alan put on the apron and joined his wife in the kitchen.

“That was the ‘Eureka’ moment,” says Valerie, smiling.

“Alan’s ears pricked up when I told him the amount of money I had made from two saucepans of milk.

“He even learned how to use the Kenwood mixer; he was so impressed with my small enterprise.

And he joined her at markets.

“Alan joined me at the Farmers’ Markets in Blarney, Skibbereen, and Clonakilty,” says Valerie.

“He was amazed at the great reaction from the customers about our products. Everyone loved them and wanted to buy them. It was very encouraging.”

Was Alan encouraged to set up his stall then?

“Soon, Alan began to love the social aspect of going to Farmers’ Markets selling our products from the farm.” There were perks to the job.

“The bit of money was welcome too!” says Valerie.

How did sharing the kitchen, now Valerie’s food development and production centre, work out?

“It could be stressful at times working in the kitchen together. We still had lots to learn,” says Valerie.

“But they were exciting times too.”

It was time to widen their horizons.

“We knew the demand was there,” says Valerie.

The Kingstons tasted the sweet taste of success.

“We weren’t able to satisfy the huge demand for our products. We had to get bigger.”

Soon, there was a different view from the Kingston’s kitchen window, apart from the herd of Holstein Friesian cows grazing by the Ilen river.

“The demand for our products drove us down the central distribution route,” says Valerie.

“It was amazing seeing the trucks pulling up outside the kitchen window delivering our products nationwide.

“We built a production unit on the farm. Our bench-mark was that the product must taste the same, if not better than the very first batch we brought to the farmers’ market in Blarney.”

Today, the production plant is operating on an even bigger scale, employing 40 people. 25% of Glenilen products are exported to Britain annually.

Is Alan concerned about Brexit?

“You know, the UK will always be our neighbours,” says Alan.

“They are on our doorstep. The Irish palette and the British palette are very similar. I think we’ll always do business with the UK.”

Sainsburys and Waitrose stock the products as well as Tesco.

Glenilen products are familiar on supermarket shelves here, including SuperValu. The enterprise achieves in the region of €4 million annually.

“That is the great part about it,” says Valerie, speaking about the company’s employees.

“Employing people and seeing the buzz around West Cork gives us a real kick. It is great to see rural Ireland come alive.

“Now, we’ve started down the food tourism route, offering farm tours to school- children and others who are interested in seeing how we do things.”

So, sometimes the faraway hills aren’t always greener? Valerie laughs.

“You know, I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t take that step to accept the Science course at UCC.”

Now the world really is her oyster.

Glenilen Farm produces fruit yogurt, natural live yogurt, cheescake, mousse, clotted cream, butter, and low-fat cream cheese.

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