With more farmers experiencing burnout, writer and dairy farmer Lorna Sixsmith – herself a victim – found that taking a strategic approach to the farming calendar can alleviate the stress of working as long as 90 hours a week.
“I have to admit that for the first time in my life, I felt burnt out last May. I was emotionally and physically drained,” said Sixsmith, who farms with her husband, Brian James, in Crettyard, Co. Carlow.
Keeping the farm running while converting from being sole traders to a company between February and May, took its toll.
“With the exception of our accountant, most of the so-called ‘professionals’ knew very little. This led to a lot of extra work and stress,” she said.
“Farming can seem like drudgery when stress combines with long hours. This year has been fine and we’ve enjoyed the calving season – although a short break before breeding season would be nice.
“For most farmers now, the calving and lambing season is fairly compact. The longest hours are over a six-week period, so the end isn’t too far from sight,” she said.
“Farmers are showing more awareness of their own capabilities and limits now during busy calving and lambing seasons, with many getting students in for the couple of months.
“We made a move two years ago to reduce the workload somewhat. For a few years, we were calving down 150-160 – of which about 60 were heifers – and then selling some freshly calved cows and heifers.
“We now sell about 30 heifers as maidens each year to reduce the workload. It’s 30 less to calve, train to the parlour and sell privately or in the mart. We calved 128 this year and would see 140 as our maximum number.”
Sixsmith and James put preparation in before the calving season starts. “The calf sheds will be clean and ready for disinfecting and bedding most of the time.
“The cows are housed in three different sheds and divided according to calving dates. The milking parlour will have been serviced.
“We have all necessary supplies in place – including chocolate. Paperwork will be up to date, and we go on holiday in January.”
Ploughing your own furrow helps.
We don’t pay any heed to what other farmers are doing. We ask ourselves; ‘will doing this make us money and is it necessary?’. That helps to determine the essentials at a busy time.
“We let the frills go and have a very long finger for the non-essentials. Power naps of 15-20 minutes are useful too.”
Family farming means just that – everyone helps out, she said. “The children are a great help at weekends and during their holidays.
“Our daughter does some of the cooking and baking. It’s lovely to come in from feeding the calves to a toasty warm kitchen and the table set for breakfast.“
Trying to finish tasks by a certain time can only add to anxiety levels, Sixsmith said. “I believe that jobs like calf-feeding take as long as they take.
“We don’t clock watch – except for when children have to be collected – during calving. If the cows are milked half an hour later than planned because we need a cuppa and cake then so be it,” she said.
“Our social life is almost nil for two months but that’s far less stressful. Social media is great as I dip in and out of it for chats. To be honest, I don’t miss not seeing much of other people at all,” said Sixsmith.
The commute of just a few minutes to the workplace and the ability to resume hobbies in quieter times are compensations, she said.
For Sixsmith, author of ‘An Ideal Husband’, ‘Would You Marry a Farmer’, and ‘How To Be A Perfect Farm Wife’ on Amazon and in bookshops, writing is a novel way to supplement farming.
She and James, along with Will, 14, and Kate, 12, left the UK to run the Sixsmith family farm in Garrendenny.
“My husband and I were both reared on farms but he, as the second son, and I, as a daughter, went to college.”
James was a scientist and Sixsmith a teacher near Salisbury. They dreamed of buying a smallholding in Devon or France.
An offer from Sixsmith’s father, who wanted to retire, found the family back in Crettyard in 2002.
“As someone with allergies to dairy products; straw; grass; pollens; and much more, not to mention never having considered full-time farming as a career, I surprised myself,” Sixsmith said.
Having also worked as an interior designer and social media trainer, Sixsmith found she wasn’t that different to many other farmers.
“More farmers are following other careers now. The decision may be made for financial reasons as the farm may not be able to provide incomes for two generations or because parent and child recognise they would struggle to work together.”
According to Sixsmith, there’s now more equality, with both parties having a say in how the farm is run, as well as how money is spent.
Other women have told her that they often have to prove themselves before being accepted by male farmers. “Once they’ve been accepted, it’s all fine,” she said.
As a female farmer, Sixsmith finds it beneficial to chat to other women about farming. Topics range from calf rearing to how to cope with being in a field all day where there’s no toilet.
“I think this is one of the reasons for the popularity of the new women in farming groups. I’m interested in talking about books, farming history or current farming practices.
“I’m finding the women in farming groups are providing companionship and interesting conversation as well as being educational and positive,” she said.
Sixsmith divides her year into three. “February to early May is my busiest season on the farm as I do the calf rearing.
“May to September is my busiest time for writing. As I’ve brought books out in time for the Ploughing Championships in September every year, it’s meant a very busy July and August.
“October to January is spent marketing, reading and catching up on some decorating.”
Working the land is inspirational, she said. “My best ideas come when I’m feeding calves or bringing in the cows. This is brought on by the relaxation of getting into their zone of walking languidly and hearing nothing but birdsong and the trundle of a distant tractor.
“Yet as someone who seems to change her career every five years, I can’t see myself just farming for 30-plus years.
“The writing dovetails very neatly with farming. If I’m away from the farm for a few days, I really miss it. When I’ve had a break from writing for a few weeks, my fingers start itching to get back to it. It’s a case of having the best of both worlds.”