Limerick farmer is cream of the crop

‘I love the life, it just doesn’t feel like work’

Dairy farmer of the year Edward Fitzgerald with his father Michael and ashling the Cow on his farm in Kilmallock.

Dairy farmer of the year Edward Fitzgerald with his father Michael and ashling the Cow on his farm in Kilmallock.

Fri, Oct 25, 2013, 18:23

Edward Fitzgerald loves his job. Really loves it. This makes it slightly easier for him to bound out of bed when his alarm goes off at 5.30am.

He is a dairy farmer – but not just any dairy farmer. Earlier this week he was named the State’s top dairy farmer in the National Dairy Council and Kerrygold Quality Milk Awards. It is the highest accolade for dairy farmers and was described by former winner Alan Gillis as the Sam Maguire of farming.

Mr Gillis went on to lead the Irish Farmers Association and become an MEP but Fitzgerald (40) is happy to focus on his cows. It must be in his blood, as he is the fifth generation of Fitzgeralds to farm at Tobernea, near Kilmallock, Co Limerick.

“We started leasing the land back in 1875 and then in 1903 we bought the farm for £1,550,” he says. “I was always going to farm. There was nothing else in my mind.”

His father Michael (66) was still a young man when Edward left school so he was encouraged to get some off-farm experience by studying engineering. He worked in engineering for a few years while farming part time until he began farming full-time alongside his father five years ago.

“I love the life. The hours are long but if you are doing something you enjoy, it makes no difference what kind of hours you work,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel like work. Even last year, as bad as it was with weather, I would prefer to be farming than in an office situation.”

What is it about farming that gets him out of bed? “You’re outside. You’re kept busy all day. You are always thinking of ways to improve the farm. We are very proud of the way the farm looks here and we do an awful lot of work in making sure that it looks good at all times. And we are very proud of our herd.”

He milks 70 cows and, like the Fitzgeralds, the herd goes back generations.

“We know every cow individually and have done so for years. We know the generations behind her as well and every one of her relations in the herd. We might notice a little quirk in a heifer and remember that, while her mother didn’t have it, her grandmother did. In the last 20 or 30 years, all we ever bought in was two cows.”

He supplies Kerry Agribusiness and most of the milk is used to make cheese.

Despite being rooted in Tobernea for generations, Fitzgerald faced an uphill battle when he and his wife Olivia sought planning permission for a house after they married in 2008.

“We had an awful lot of trouble. We proved that I was born here, went to school here, always worked my entire life in the area and that I owned the farm and was working full-time but still we found it very hard.”

Living away from the farm is out of the question for dairy farmers who need to be close to their herds, particularly when it comes to calving; he thought that would be recognised by Limerick County Council.

“But we went into a meeting and they suggested that we buy a house in Kilmallock or Charleville. I thought that was disgraceful. We had to jump through hoops for them and they refused us on a couple of occasions but because we were so determined, we finally got it. We had no other choice and it cost a lot of money .

“But it wasn’t just us. I have an awful lot of friends who went through hurdles like that,” he says. “We got there in the end and we are delighted to have our house on the farm. Now we have a view of every single field from our house.”

Olivia works four days a week with a foreign student placement programme “but she’s very involved in the farm too”,. Years ago, dairy farmers would have laughed at the thought of travelling abroad but that is changing.

The couple have skied in Austria and Italy and spent their honeymoon in Argentina.

“Of course it’s a lot harder to get away but with my father here with me, we try to get away when possible and my parents do too. When you are farming you can’t keep going away but it’s good to get a week or two here or there.”

Many dairy farmers are looking forward to expanding their herds when the milk quota system is dismantled in 2015. Fitzgerald would like to increase the herd to 80 cows, but no more than that.

“We’re enjoying farming and if you have a [large] number of animals in the yard you are going to be under pressure doing the work. And I think your pride in the work would slightly go.”

Winning the award was a goal he set himself a few years ago, “but I didn’t think I would be winning it this quick. Of course it’s down to my father too and the records he kept.

“My father won the Golden Vale quality milk award and came second in the national awards the following year. All we want to do is produce top quality milk. That’s what drives us.”