Technology is the farmer’s friend, but at heart, farming still requires human labour
I have no technological tools for my small-scale husbandry, but I get a never-failing thrill when I fork over a ridge of dark clay to reveal a spill of new potatoes
“I watched the tractor sweep back and forth, covering apparently fresh ground with each pass.” Photograph: Frank Miller
The smartphone is changing everything, even in the obscure corner of Wicklow where I have lived these dozen years. Recently, on a rare dry and temperate spring day, I took our small, hairy terrier for a walk across the valley. She cavorted in delirious loops around me as I strolled through the lush grass.
My farming friend and neighbour was zig-zagging across the field in his tractor and spreading something – I couldn’t see what, so I called the dog to me. Then I roared with increasing frustration and volume till she eventually slunk close enough for me to clip on the lead.
I watched the tractor sweep back and forth, covering apparently fresh ground with each pass, following esoteric guidelines invisible to me. Farmer Friend saw me, pulled up and beckoned me over. He was laying tiny pellets of urea – a light, innocuous fertiliser unlikely to interest the dog, so I unclipped her. She bounded away while we had the chat.
Clearly, he hadn’t been drinking, so I complimented him on such instinctual knowledge of his land. Then he showed me the app on his phone. Using a virtual map of his field and a signal bounced off a satellite 12,000 miles high, he was able to monitor his progress to the inch, never covering the same ground twice.
He’s done this to me before. Once, over pints, I commended his eerie ability to predict the mercurial weather changes in our very particular microclimate. I had ascribed this to native wisdom and subtle observations of how the cattle stood or the quantity of berries on the blackthorn. Then out came the phone and he showed me the website of some guy in New Zealand he swore by. Talk then turned to an old farmer over the hill from us who sorely misses the son who headed Down Under for work. Once a week, whilst working a vast Australian field, the boy straps his android to the dashboard of his tractor and skypes his dad in Wicklow.
I have seen other technological advances in my years here. Farmer Friend once snorted self-deprecatingly when I congratulated him on his new, state-of-the-art cattle crush, but I saw it being constructed and it is impressive. An ergonomically designed complex of channelled runways and gates built to ensure the safe, easy passage of many large beasts, it is cutting-edge agricultural architecture which made the front page of the Farmers Journal and is actually quite the thing.
There are labour-saving machines which unroll and distribute hay bales for easier feeding. There are others which blow fresh straw across the barn for clean bedding. There are cameras in byres and sheep sheds which are invaluable during calving and lambing, and yet . . . Nature retains its own, over-riding imperatives. The weather still dictates the agricultural timetable, as the recent crisis has shown.
The almost incessant rain made the land a giant, sodden sponge. Our hillside acre was a morass at the top and a quagmire at the bottom. A neighbour, dexterous with a mini-digger, cut a short drainage channel and encouraged a gentle but steady stream of water to bubble out through the lower gate and into the ditch at the side of the road.
Emigration is once again a sad fact of rural Irish life and other options draw children of the countryside elsewhere
Despite the pleasing sound of the trickling flow, I avoided that corner, directing my steps instead towards the discouraging, boggy, weed-infested vegetable garden. But my concerns were minuscule. The livestock should have been grazing the surrounding fields since March – after all, there was rich grass enough in the gently sloping meadows.
The problem was the soft ground. The herd’s heavy feet quickly turned the green sward to mud and the grass became inedible. Even in untouched patches, the unseasonably soft earth got compacted, making it harder for subsequent rain to drain away, and the fields were flooded for weeks. So, countrywide, the beasts were kept in the barns much longer than usual. Furthermore, heavy summer rain last year compromised the making of hay for stores of winter fodder. Those already-reduced stocks quickly dwindled and people were begging each other for any spare feed. Luckily, Farmer Friend had sufficient silage at hand, but he is still much behind himself having brought animals in and out, then in and out again, because of snow and rain, then snow and rain again.
Developments in digital and mechanical technology certainly help him compensate for the climate’s vagaries but, at heart, farming still requires human labour – and future deposits of that seem uncertain. Two of his three children are pursuing different paths and the third is far away. Emigration is once again a sad fact of rural Irish life and other options draw children of the countryside elsewhere whilst back at home their parents age inexorably. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In my personal microcosm I mostly work our small plot alone. Once a while I persuade (or bribe) my young sons to help but, to be fair to them, it’s hard to take pleasure from weeding in weather like we’ve had, and the call of the Xbox is persistent.
In my early days here I was in the village shop when I noticed a big, hairy farmer in tattered, manure-spattered work clothes. He shouted at no one in particular: “Are you going for a pint? Farmer called – he’s in the pub!” Then I saw the tiny mobile phone in his huge hand. The image no longer seems incongruous. The village has grown and there have been other advances. Windmills are spreading up the flanks of our local mountain across the valley and new houses have crept up the hill towards us – accompanied by paving and streetlamps. The green energy of the former is welcome: the light pollution of the latter is less so.
In the seclusion of the vegetable garden I have no technological tools for my small-scale husbandry – just the usual spades, forks, trowels and hoes – but I bolster myself with sense memories of the intense burst of flavour from a tomato taken straight from the vine whilst picking courgettes for dinner; or that quintessential taste of a carrot that has been 20 minutes from the ground to the table. And every July I get a never-failing thrill of surprise when I fork over a ridge of dark clay to reveal a spill of new potatoes – bountiful nuggets from the stony soil. There is a short-term satisfaction in clearing the beds and a deeper one in anticipation of autumn’s abundance, so . . . I’ll dig.
In Sight of Yellow Mountain: A Year in the Irish Countryside by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books