Who’d be a farmer? We would

Students at agricultural college explain why they’ve chosen a farming life, and 79-year-old Paddy Joe Roseingrave explains why he’ll never give up

Fri, Jan 3, 2014, 02:00

There are 131 first-year students enrolled in the Certificate of Agriculture course at the Teagasc-run Kildalton College, Co Kilkenny. Kildalton is a working farm of 226 hectares, with a herd of 400 cattle, 170 sheep, and several horses, and half of the student day is spent in practical work.

Of the 131 first-year agriculture students only three are female and the vast majority of students come from farming backgrounds. Most have come to Kildalton straight from school, although some are in their early 20s, having lived abroad or started out by studying something else before deciding to focus on farming as a career.

“It’s very rare that you meet someone who’s grown up on a farm who doesn’t want to do something else,” says Mark Cleary, one of 10 first-year students who have agreed to be interviewed by The Irish Times.

There is also a very straightforward reason why students of farming come from farming backgrounds: the cost of land. “The biggest problem for someone starting out with no family farming connections would be getting finance to buy land to start out with,” explains John McNally.

“Land is currently €12,000 an acre for good land, €10,000 for marginal land,” says Cleary. “But in farming, you have to look at it as a lifestyle too. The farm is also your home, and the home is in the middle of the business.”

They talk about the contradictions of farming in a country where they consider more land should be freed up by older farmers who no longer actively farm. “The thing is, we’re all whingeing about older farmers holding on to land, but the truth is, if we were in that situation, we wouldn’t want to sell either,” Cleary admits. His own family farm was sold in recent years when his parents divorced.

“Selling your land is the worst case scenario,” says Brian Costigan.

“There’s pride in having land in your name,” says John Fitzpatrick.

“You’d feel sick letting it go,” says McNally.

“Having land makes you feel like a man. If you sold your land, you’d feel you’d have let down the older generation; that you robbed them for your own comfort,” says Laurence O’Brien. “In New Zealand, farming is a business. In Ireland, it’s a way of life.”

“What we need to find is a middle way between the two,” suggests McNally.

“Everyone will have to get more efficient in the way they farm,” says Michael Tobin.

They all talk about the way farming in Ireland will change when the current milk quotas are lifted in 2015. “Dairying is being called ‘white gold’. The most profitable kind of farming is dairying, but you need to have all your land in one block for that, and lots of Irish farms are in parcels of land here and there,” says Cleary. “The Chinese market is going to be huge, and everyone is going to want to be producing part of what they want. I know a lot of farmers converting to dairy.”

“Even people from a dry stock background are learning about dairying, because at the end of the day, everyone is looking to make more money,” says McNally.

What about the fact that one cow produces as much methane gas a day as the pollutant in a car does and that both are bad for the environment? They all look politely bored. “What are we supposed to do, give up eating dairy?” asks Cleary rhetorically.

“We’re coming towards a time where people want to develop and farmers have developed what they can to the max. They now need to develop bigger farms, but the problem is the price of land and the lack of availability,” says O’Brien. He’s determined to farm no matter what, but he offers the information that his farmer father “always told me to get a full-time job and do farming part-time, because there’s not enough of a living in it”.

They talk about money and the question of farming being a business. “You definitely need to go to college now. Farming is a business at the end of the day and you have to treat it like a business,” says Cleary.

However, although he says this, he’s ambivalent on the subject, because later he says: “Farming is a lifestyle from an older time. You’re on far less than the minimum wage, so the modern way of farming has to be a mixture of both old and new; that you can make a living and still enjoy the farming.”

“Farming is not like a normal job,” says McNally. His own father took over the family farm when he was just 16.

Why do the male students think they have so few female colleagues on the course? (None are currently in the room with them.)

“Fellas go out farming with their fathers when they’re younger, but the girls don’t because the work is physical,” suggests McNally. “Maybe it starts there.”

“They’re not overly encouraged,” says Tobin. “But you can’t take nine months off from farming because you’re having a baby. The farm still has to be farmed. And there are some diseases on farms that are very dangerous for pregnant women.”

“Females usually don’t show interest in the farming lifestyle,” says Cleary.

The three women students in the year are Aoife Rooney, Alison Smyth and Lisa Foley. Later, they listen with wary curiosity and amusement to what their male fellow students have had to say on the subject of there being so few women in the class.

“We’re sick of hearing the cliche that women can’t be farmers,” sighs Foley. “And men don’t believe women can drive tractors either. [All three of them drive tractors.] I’d be at the mart a lot, and there are men there who say the mart isn’t a place for a women, but farming is my job and so that’s why I’m there. I can see them looking at my painted nails. They tell me I should be married and at home.”

All three come from farms themselves. Rooney is one of five daughters. Her 40-hectare family farm in Co Donegal has sheep and beef on it. “I don’t have any brothers and the farm is going to be left to me, because my sisters don’t have any interest in it,” she says.

Is it the farming she wants to do, or more particularly, farming her family’s land? If she was offered the same acreage elsewhere and an opportunity to farm it, would she want to?

“No,” she says. “My father farmed that land and so did my grandfather. That’s the land I want to farm, because of the family connection to it.”

Foley sees it differently. “I’d be reluctant to give up my family farm, but if I was able to afford to buy other land, I would do that. And then the new farm that I started would be my legacy.”

Foley has sisters and a brother. “But all I wanted to ever do was farming. I was always out with my father as a child. I’ve been out on the farm since I could walk, even though my mother never wanted me to go farming. And I’ve been going to the mart by myself since I was a child. The father would drop me off when I was 11 or 12 and tell me, ‘get me €80 a head for selling those fat lambs’. And I’d go for €90 just to show him I could do it.”

“You either love farming or you don’t,” says Smyth. “I love being with animals and being outside.”

“In a year on a farm, you see an animal born, you put weight on it, you sell it. You see the cycle of life, and every day you have a different task,” says Foley.

She thinks that the future of farming in Ireland will be on a much bigger scale. “They won’t be rambly farms with 18 cows and a handful of sheep. Farms will have a set amount of stock. I think it’ll be very hard for anyone to start into farming, because all the dairying men will have all the money and all the land.”

The three are agreed it’s essential to have a formal farming education now. “You’re taught how to do things more efficiently,” says Rooney. “It is hard though when you get home to try to get people to try something new when they’ve been doing it a certain way for so long.”

“But if you can demonstrate that you can save money by doing it a new way, that makes a difference,” Foley points out. “Then they accept it, because they can see it’s saving money. Then they’ll try it.”

WAY OF LIFE: ‘It’s a fierce blow when people don’t want to continue’
Paddy Joe Roseingrave’s people have been farming land at Beagh, in Co Galway, for generations; possibly for 200 years. He is now 79, and does not consider himself retired. His son, Michael (49), does most of the work now, “but I keep an eye on things” is how Paddy Joe describes the arrangement. His own father did the same, until he died in 1988, aged 78. Michael still lives at home with his father, and Dympna, his mother.

Their holding is 16.5 hectacres, but in common with many farms, the land is located in different parcels around the townland. They have a herd of 23 cattle, with 30 ewes and a ram. “It’s enough,” as Paddy Joe puts it.

Paddy Joe looks genuinely baffled when asked how he learned to farm. “Like every young boy and girl of my time, when you came home from school, you were always working on the farm,” he explains. “There were jobs to be done till evening time. The old people had a theory, when you’re working, the work will learn you.”

He left school at 14 to work on the farm full-time with his father. “At that time, no questions were asked. It was what was done in nearly every household. And I had five sisters, so . . . ”

The single biggest change Paddy Joe says he has seen in a lifetime of almost continuous farming of the same land is the disappearance of the horse. “They pulled the ploughs, the harrows, the mowing machine. Every farmer would have two horses. One working, one resting. The horses’d nearly know what you were thinking. And neighbours would help you out with a horse if you needed one. Then the tractors started coming in in the early 1950s.”

It’s Michael’s opinion that farmers have a lot less contact with other farmers now than in his father’s time, when horses were borrowed and a threshing machine periodically came to town to be used communally. “We’re a lot more isolated now,” he says. “Maybe if a cow was calving, you’d call a neighbour. But it’s all contract machines now.”

“To scythe an acre of corn in a day was a big day’s work back then,” recalls Paddy Joe, “and you needed a lot of men to do it. Now a combine can cut 100 acres in a day.”

“You have to have education now to be a farmer,” says Michael. “There is so much paperwork and red tape and forms.” He has seen many changes in farming too. “We went from brass tags to electronic tags in cattle, for instance.” But the most profound change in the way Michael farms compared with how his father and grandfather farmed is in technology.

“I have a slatted house down the fields, and there’s a camera there. I can be lying in my bed and see the cow calving, and I know when I have to get up. I can even read the tag on the cow’s ear,” he says.

Before the shed was built and the animals were all contained in one place, where he could watch them via a link in his bedroom, Michael had to be out for hours at a time when cows were calving. “Now I can feed them in my shoes, without even changing my clothes. You’d have needed wellingtons until the shed was built.”

Paddy Joe is happy that his son has continued to farm the land. “It’s a fierce blow when people don’t want to continue, and when the land gets rented out, or sold.”

Will he ever retire? He laughs.”It’s a way of life and a tradition. There are a certain number of people like me who just love the land, and their heart and soul are in the land.”

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