‘Every January I ask myself why do I do this’: Farmers reflect on state of sector at Tullamore Show

‘Climate change, the price of fertiliser, the war in Ukraine, everything ... we’re still getting the same price for beef’

Sheep farmer Selina Bracken from Durrow, Co Offaly says farming is like a cult. “They get you in when you’re young and don’t know any better”.

“If you told someone I want you to work 50 or 60 hours a week and I’m not even going to give you minimum wage at the end of it, they’d be like ‘no we’re not having it’, and yet I will do that, on top of my working week. So it is a cult.”

Speaking from the Crafts Tent at Tullamore Show where she was spinning wool on a loom, the third generation farmer said she is working on measures to make their family operation more streamlined and less labour intensive.

“I am trying to increase the viability of our fleece because at the moment it’s a very underutilised resource in Ireland — it’s an ongoing issue because there aren’t many mills in Ireland that will wash and process our fleece and send it back to us.” Very little of the wool that is labelled as Irish is actually from Ireland because of the lax labelling process, she says.

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Selina explained that at the moment she sells her fleece for 20 cent a kilo and gets about three kilos of wool from each sheep. But her shearer charges €2.50 per sheep. “It’s something that we have to do for their health, we don’t have a choice.”

While the Bracken farm is a mixed farm with some tillage, Selina also works full time for a pharmaceutical company making labels for clinical trials. She takes her holidays to coincide with lambing season. “Every January I ask myself why do I do this?”

It is a dilemma echoed by Gerry Stanford, a suckler beef farmer from Gort, Co Galway. He too works a full time job off the farm. “Our farm is pretty big, but I still can’t make it work. Both of us are working off the farm, it is what it is. Every year I’m trying to grow the farm because I love it. We’re being squeezed out of it to be honest.

“This has been a testing summer for us. The way the climate went and then the grass growth was pretty difficult this year. The emissions cuts don’t make sense to me,” he said.

“The only way we can meet proposed emissions is by reducing stock, it’s not what I want to do because I have grasslands, but I’m still going to be made to reduce numbers which I don’t want to. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m open to trying other farming — maybe sheep, I will look for alternatives, but I won’t be planting trees or anything like that,” he added.

Andrew Hudson, a dairy farmer with a herd of 300, from Cootehill, Co Cavan said the most difficult part of this summer was getting the first cut done. “The weather wasn’t with us at all. A wee drop of rain now would do no harm.”

Alan Clarke from cows.ie, a cattle trading business located in north Westmeath, half way between Athlone and Mullingar, says this has been a difficult summer for some of their customers especially those on the southern coast where sea winds have taken all the moisture from the soil. “A lot of them now have their cattle indoors and are feeding their stock which is quite expensive.”

Another beef suckler farmer, Jason Ross, from Co Wexford said this summer has been particularly difficult. “With climate change, the price of fertiliser, the war in Ukraine, everything. Imports are too high and we’re still getting the same price for beef, people think we’re getting an outrageous price for beef but we’re not, we’re not getting enough. The weather has made a big impact, fertilisers are being used this year but we haven’t had the same response of the weather, and now we’re dry and we’re cutting into winter feed at the minute which we shouldn’t be.

“Emissions will affect everybody. As farmers, we’ll try to do our best for emissions, but we can only do so much.”

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue called on the farming and agri sector to remain united over the next decade to meet the challenges ahead in reaching climate targets.

“Divisions between us will not serve any purpose,” he said at the opening of the show, the first time it has taken place since 2019.

Mr McConalogue said his overarching ambition was twofold; to ensure that farmers keep farming now and into the future for the next generation while also working hard to reduce emissions from the sector.