Colm O’Leary (24) is the modern face of dairy farming. He was among the first students to complete a UCD dairy business degree aimed at the future leaders of the industry. He spent five months in New Zealand as part of the course and travelled through central America doing charity work.
He began working full-time on the family farm in Blarney, Co Cork, just over a year ago. Colm farms with his father Tim, deputy president of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), and mother Katherine, who also teaches and is a Farmers' Journal columnist.
“It’s the perfect time to come home,” he said. “I get one year of practice before quotas go. The plan was always for me to come home so we’ve been getting ready for expansion.
“We’ve bought an extra 30 heifers to prepare. We milked 96 cows last year and the plan will be 150 next year or the year after. The goal will be produce more from less. Get the most out of the grass and buy in as little feed and fertiliser as possible.”
The family has drawn up a five-year plan which will require more than the 66 hectares of land they currently farm. They plan to increase output by 50 per cent in the next five years.
Farm land does not come up for sale too often in Blarney, a stone’s throw from Cork city, so he will be looking to set up a partnership with a farmer in the locality and to rent more land.
artnership His parents are now in the process of setting up a partnership with him. “In fairness, they are very good to work with,” he said. “We would be discussing grazing, or moving stock, and D
ad will argue with me and we will discuss it but if I really push it, he would let me have my way.
“They are not at all set in their ways. With his IFA job, Dad’s gone three or four days a week, so it’s very nice to have the freedom. But at the same time it’s really nice to have them here for support. During calving, Mum is an absolute asset, she does an unreal amount of work. I think it’s working really well for all of us.”
Colm believes the ending of milk quotas will make a major difference to the dairy sector. “The industry hasn’t changed much in 30 years but in 30 years’ time it should be two or three times bigger in terms of the amount of money it’s bringing into the country,” he said.
And it won’t be only farmers who will benefit.
"I don't think there's going to be a big boom in places like Blarney overnight, but I think it will have made a significant difference in time. There's going to be a lot of extra labour needed on farms in the next 10 years for a start. We supply Dairygold and if you go in to Mitchelstown you'll see the new milk-processing facilities. The same is happening in Mallow and it has already happened in Macroom. They will have a significant impact on those towns."
Dairygold is investing more than €200 million on its expansion plan for the post-quota era.
In another nod towards the changing face of Irish farmers, he said he has no desire to work alone. “One of the only downsides is when I’m on my own on the farm, even though I’m only 10 minutes outside the city. One of things I liked the best about New Zealand was that there were five of us working on the farm, so there was good craic.”
His brother Diarmuid works on the farm two days a week and he hopes another brother, Philip, an army officer, will return to the farm after his army career.
“That’s another goal of our expansion, that there would be room for him in the business. I want to work with people. Going out to work on your own, day in, day out, is tough. It’s tough to motivate yourself.”
One year on, he has no doubt that farming was the right decision for him.
“It’s super to be getting into an industry that has such a feel-good factor. I have really loved this first year. Last year’s calves were the first calves I had total responsibility for and they are in great condition, so it is really satisfying,” he said.
“During the good weather my friends were going into offices and I was outside late into the evening. If I’d gone into any other job I would not be working for myself at the age of 24. I wouldn’t have as much control or the same freedom.”
Colm is the third generation to farm their land. He gestures to a house in the distance where his great-grandfather’s family came from. He points in another direction to the home where his grandmother grew up.
“I would love to think that some day I would be part of that story,” he said.