A farmer's daughter living off the land

Mon, Jul 9, 2012, 01:00

Applying her legal trade to her own agricultural background was a natural move for a woman whose chat ‘puts farmers at ease’, writes CAROLINE MADDEN

BACK IN 2008, Aisling Meehan was well on her way to becoming a high-flying city lawyer. She had completed her apprenticeship with prestigious top-tier Dublin firm William Fry, during which time she acquired the dual qualification of solicitor and tax consultant (AITI), and was enjoying a good salary and an equally good social life. However, her agricultural and entrepreneurial roots were always calling, and when an old mentor got in touch, it was the push she needed to take the road less travelled.

While a student at University of Limerick, Aisling spent a summer shadowing Tipperary solicitor Oliver Ryan-Purcell, who specialised in all things agricultural. Then in 2008 the solicitor mentioned to Aisling’s father that he was inundated with work, and wondered how his former intern was getting on in Dublin. The pair got in touch and Oliver asked Aisling if she had any interest in forming an association of some sort, as he was keen to devote more time to his twin passions of mediation (he is an accredited mediator) and hunting.

Oliver proposed transferring his practice to Aisling while continuing to act as a consultant to the business. Aisling didn’t need to be asked twice – she handed in her notice, moved home to the family farm in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, and at the age of 26 became the principal of her own specialised legal practice.

Perhaps such a career choice was not all that surprising, given that she made her first foray into entrepreneurship in her early teens. Her parents were always keen to develop and diversify their dairy farm business, Rathlahine farm, so that it could provide a living for Aisling and her three brothers.

Over the years, they grew the farm “through sheer hard work” from 60 to about 500 acres, won many farming awards and established a conference centre that provides educational farm tours for international visitors.

The Meehans also gave Aisling the job of developing the natural lake on the home farm into a fishing enterprise, Rathlahine Trout Angling. At the time, Aisling was just 13. Naturally such a budding young business-lady attracted local and national media attention, and the whole experience drove home the idea that she could make a way of life out of agricultural activities, even if she did not want to become a hands-on farmer.

Her office is based on the family farm but she travels a lot; because of the nature of her work, it’s important that she meet her clients on their farms. If, for example, a farmer has a problem with a Department of Agriculture inspection, or if a dispute arises over a piece of land, an onsite visit is vital.

“If you’re going to represent a client, you’ll be at a disadvantage if everyone else has seen where the incident actually occurred ,” she says.

One might be forgiven for imagining that a 26-year-old woman might receive a somewhat dubious reception from older male farmers, but fortunately this didn’t prove to be the case. “I was a little worried about that . . . but I have had absolutely no problem with that whatsoever,” she says. “I grew up with farmers; I lived, breathed and slept farming, so I can converse about it . . . the price of animals at the mart, milk prices. It puts farmers at their ease.”

Also she says that “the beauty” of her practice is that she can bounce issues off Oliver, who has been advising on agricultural legal matters since the 1970s, while she brings tax expertise to the table. Her tax background proves hugely beneficial when advising on farming matters such a succession planning, as she can advise clients on how to structure their affairs in the most tax-efficient way possible.

So what type of queries would she deal with in a typical day? Although agricultural law is a specialised area, her work covers a vast range of issues from contractual agreements, conveyancing and succession planning to queries around milk quotas, single farm payments and various schemes of the Department of Agriculture and the EU.

“Thankfully there’s no shortage of work,” she says. Indeed the practice has been extremely busy – it started out with Oliver’s clients but over its four years in existence it has attracted a great deal of new business through word of mouth, and they are now “flat out” with work, Aisling says. “We’re just at the level now where we’re looking into taking someone on.”

So does she enjoy her new rural career? “When I was working before I would meet people with great careers who would say they loved their work.” Her reaction to this was always “yeah, right”. “Now I’m one of those people. I have a renewed enthusiasm and interest in farming.”

She is bemused to find that farming is almost becoming fashionable. Her Dublin friends are becoming increasingly interested in food and farming, and many of them even have plots where they grow their own vegetables. “When they hear about the prospects of agriculture, they see that it might be one of the heroes .”

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