‘No matter how far we fall, we always go again’: Young farmer

“There are so many untruths out there and misinformed people. All we need to do is showcase the real side of farming that we practice daily which is full of compassion, determination and resilience. We are a sector forced to adapt to new challenges every year and no matter how far we fall, we always go again.”

Those are the sentiments of ‘farming queen’ Emma McCormack whose Instagram page is getting her noticed and recently resulted in an appearance on episode five of ‘Cook-in’ with award-winning chef, Mark Moriarty of The Greenhouse, Dublin, on RTÉ One.

“I am the happiest I have ever been and I am injecting this energy back into the agricultural sector by using my voice to spread a positive message far and wide about Irish farming,” said Emma, who is from a small-scale suckling and sheep farm in Streamstown, Co. Westmeath.

“My Instagram page has been hugely beneficial in allowing me to network with other young farmers and learn from different systems and outlooks. I see Irish farms expanding rapidly and, with this, we need to see more encouragement of young people into the sector,” the 24-year-old said.

“We, as primary producers, have a responsibility to give consumers an insight into the supreme quality food we produce. Farmers themselves are faced with the duty of making farm work and working conditions as appealing as possible to draw the right people into these jobs.

Farmers often comment that good capable staff are hard to find but, as someone who has worked on farms of every sort, I think good jobs take a little searching for also. Consumers, producers and agricultural graduates must all work together in order for the sector to thrive as it has the potential to.

The beef stock on the family farm are mainly Limousin and Charolais and the flock of sheep are quite a varied mix, Emma said.

“I have three brothers and four sisters. As soon as we were old enough to help out on the farm, Dad had us outside. I always had a huge connection with animals from ponies to cows, dogs, pigs and beyond. We always had pets to look after growing up.

“My two older brothers are living and working in New York in construction and, although they did a lot of the work as kids, they have no connection to or interest in agriculture anymore. My two older sisters would be the same and wouldn’t be spotted out on the farm unless there was a major emergency.

“My two younger sisters would help if they were needed and my younger brother works off-farm. I’m the only one directly farming full time as my occupation. I help Dad with his stock and I rear my own dairy-cross beef calves also,” she said.

Passion for farming

“It was only in secondary school when studying agricultural science that I realised farming was my passion. After receiving the award for agricultural science student of the year, I began milking locally for dairy farmers and so began my love for the dairy industry.

“I had no real knowledge in the area but my mind was like a sponge and I talked to as many people as possible, in order to gain as much experience as I could,” said Emma.

“In college, I studied horticulture for one year due to the matter of a hastily filled out Central Applications Office (CAO) application and listing my choices in the wrong sequence.

“I felt like a failure when I left my college course but I went back to the drawing board and started again the following September, this time studying agriculture in Waterford IT and it was the best thing I could have ever done for myself,” the Westmeath woman said.

“Through college, I travelled to Scotland on placement to work for Irish dairy farmers Maureen and Brendan Muldowney from Kilkenny who are running a number of farm partnership dairy enterprises in Ireland and Scotland.

“I spent six tough months learning how successful progressive dairy farms are run. It was a new farm, 54-bail Milfos rotary parlour and 500 heifers to calve down. I learned a huge amount about myself and about agriculture,” she said.

“After that I spent a few months in New York with my brothers and I took a long time to get used to a life that did not involve rising before the sun came up to gather the cows. The city life is amazing but long term not for me,” Emma said.

“I came home for my final year in college and picked up a job in a local pig farm to keep the bills paid. It was a good time for me to learn as I had no experience in the swine sector. However, it was physically trying,” she recalled.

New learning opportunities

“I also worked for farm relief and many farmers too, large scale and smaller family farmers. On finishing college, I spent a while working for Cows.ie – a local livestock exporter – before settling into my current job with Stokestown Dairies where I am extremely happy, while also being constantly challenged with new learning opportunities every day,” said Emma.

I work full-time hours on a local dairy farm which is newly established. There are 400 heifers being milked there through a 50-bail Waikato rotary parlour and it is a spring-calving system.

“The cows are a cross-bred mix with Friesian, Holstein and Jersey crosses making up the majority of the grass-based herd. We are now coming to the tail end of the breeding season which is being done fully by AI, through Progressive Genetics.

“Now that work has quietened a little in work and at home, I have picked up some relief milking locally also. I enjoy being busy in general but I have really immersed myself in my career since Covid-19 severely affected my life outside work and my opportunities for social interaction,” Emma said.

She raised the matter of rural isolation on the eight-part series, ‘Cook-in’, as she explained that older farmers in particular were social distancing long before the pandemic struck as many live and work in isolation. She also spoke on the matter of how the farming sector has been coping with Covid-19.

Eyes opened

Since the pandemic began, consumers’ eyes have really been opened in relation to food, with provenance a matter of concern for more, according to Emma.

“Shoppers are keen to know where their food comes from, the work that goes into producing it and the value of the product. This is a welcome change brought about by the coronavirus. I’ve been documenting my farming life on social media for some time now and it has thrown plenty of great opportunities my way.

“It is not easy to juggle everything when most of my time is spent doing physical and tough work but I believe we can all make time for what is important to us,” Emma said.

Starring in the RTÉ programme, ‘Cook-in’ with Mark Moriarty was a recent highpoint.

“It was surreal to say the least, being a small farmer from a very rural area. A lady from Appetite Media who worked with Mark Moriarty, Bord Bia and RTÉ to produce the show, stumbled across my Instagram page and we got chatting. One thing led to another and I was proud to be able to share a positive message about Irish farming,” Emma said.

‘Look after each other’

“Since the coronavirus took over our planet, I have been lucky to continue work as an essential worker. With farming, we have always been an isolated bunch anyway. My day-to-day life has been the same and I’m usually wrapped up in my own farming bubble.

“I’d need to turn on the radio in work to be reminded that there is a global pandemic ongoing. Although it can be difficult in farming, we in work have been making every effort to keep ourselves and others safe by social distancing where possible while maintaining the superior quality of our product.

On tough days, I have gravitated towards the like-minded people in a group chat I’m in called the farmers’ support group. A friend of mine Maeve Hickey made the group last year and it has been a roaring success. While we were all networking directly and privately with each other, the group chat is a common ground where anyone can come for advice on any matter; motivation; tips; educational information; or perhaps just a laugh.

“There are farmers from all over Ireland in the chat, farming all sorts of enterprises from dairy to goats, to beef, sheep, horses and beyond. It’s amazing to learn from everyone in their own ways of farming and to receive excellent support on darker days,” said Emma.

“Farming is a tough job and no one should have to be alone in that. I’m lucky to work as part of a team across several farms but I know others may be working in isolation, hence the need for social interaction.

“My father’s generation are not so tech savvy and he waited with bated breath as talk circulated on the reopening of livestock marts. Whether buying, selling or browsing, the mart is a place where you’re guaranteed a cup of tea, a smile and a listening ear for any matter.

“Everyone has different ways of dealing with the stress of farming in these uncertain times but we must all go that extra mile to look after each other.”

The matter of farm safety is a key concern for Emma at present. “I’m looking into utilising social media for a well-needed farm safety campaign at the moment.”