Why it’s not all making hay down on the farm



THERE was a time when I wanted to be a farmer’s wife. I loved the warmth of a cow’s flank when milking, the smell of the hay barn and catching brown trout in the river on my uncle’s farm in Co Down. I cherished that rural dream for years despite my very different life path. Not any more though,
Farming is a hard life, however much the land is loved. John Connell’s ‘The Cow Book’, a story of life on a family farm, tells it how it really is with all the blood, sweat and tears of joy. My uncle had to give up the farm. He couldn’t make enough money to survive and went to teaching in a boys’ prep school, happily herding boys into geography and woodworking classes.
You certainly don’t go into farming to make money, the average farm income is €23,848. Only 36 % of farms in Ireland were classified as being viable by Teagasc in 2016, 29% of farm households were sustained by off-farm income and 35% were economically vulnerable. All figures suggest that farming is more than just employment; it’s a way of life where attachment to land runs deep. Aside from that you would need to be a genius to keep on the right side of regulations, banks and the ever-changing agricultural policy. But it wasn’t any of these considerations that killed off my rural dream.
It’s the insidious notion that farmers are the ones to solely blame when it comes to global warming. It is true that agriculture the dairy sector in particular is the largest contributor at 30 %to greenhouse gas emissions. But it must be alienating to have the finger pointed at you and to feel that your very way of life is under attack, especially when we are all responsible helping to make a sustainable future.
Why, when change was needed, was the national dairy herd encouraged to increase by 50% in the last decade? It wasn’t just that the national herd grew but that farming methods used to increase milk yields like extra fertiliser or the type of cattle feed increased emissions. Now, from being told to put their foot on the accelerator pedal dairy, farmers are being told to put on the brakes on. They have gone from being portrayed as heroes of a world class grass-based industry to being zeroes in terms of climate responsibility.
In my book they are heroes. We are incredibly lucky in Ireland with a temperate climate, plentiful rain and we are pretty much self- sufficient in food. If we turned off the supply of the exotic foods travelling air miles from around the world we would still have enough to eat, although it would mean sticking to cabbages and forgetting about the avocados. The only food insecurity we have experienced recently was the shortage of flour and yeast during the pandemic when so many of us tried home baking. My own very patchy attempts at vegetable and fruit growing during lockdown brought home just how tricky producing food can be.
Like the rest of us, farmers are going to have to change and adapt and we don’t hear half enough about some of the initiatives under way which would help to lower agricultural emissions to between 21 – 30 % by 2030. Different feeds and different breeds of cattle, less fertiliser, grassland mixed with nitrogen fixing plants like clover, planting trees are just a few of them. Given the need to include more plant-based food in our diet there must be plenty of opportunities for alternative crops. We shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds us when we are all in this together.

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