Going the extra mile: Liam Myles has made a lasting impact on Irish farming
Published 24/08/2016 | 02:30
“Are you flying with eagles or gobbling with turkeys?”
This is a question Liam Myles has asked of himself and thousands of spirited young farmers over the last 50 years.
His progressive vision as former CEO of the Farm Apprenticeship Board has had a significant impact on agricultural training courses right across Ireland.
His top-class sporting career playing inter-county senior football for Tipperary, alongside the legendary Michael “Babs” Keating is equally as renowned.
But perhaps the most impressive characteristic about Liam – who at 69 years of age is still playing junior championship hurling with a club in Dublin – is his modesty as he looks back over a life well spent.
Sitting down for a cup of tea with the Farming Independent, he admits he started from scratch.
Born into a family butchering business in the small village of Ardfinnan along the banks of the River Suir, Liam carefully observed how his father, a man with no land, succeeded in getting resources together to milk cows and keep his own cattle and sheep for the shop.
“We were unique in a way that we were in farming but didn’t own any land for many many years. We rented a lot of land around the village from people who were involved with what was then a well-known woollen mills. Some land my father rented for in excess of 40 years,” he said.
Eventually, the family bought land in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when they milked cows by hand and sold their milk locally.
“Whatever was going for the milk we got top dollar and we were milking a reasonable number of cows,” he said.
Although he had an interest in farming, as a child Liam was more likely to be found kicking a ball with school pals on the village green.
“The main thing that interested me was football and hurling, we were allowed out there twice a day to play. That’s where the love and the culture came from – we all just spent our time on the green,” he said.
His interest in agricultural blossomed in secondary school, when Liam studied agricultural science for the Leaving Cert. However, his grá for GAA was never far behind. “We did it by night as an extra subject, a Waterford hurler, Donal ‘Duck’ Whelan, used to teach us. He was on the Waterford squads of 57 and 59,” said Liam who played Minor, U-21 and Senior football for the Premier County.
His older brother, Patsy, also had a big influence, eventually leading to his enrolment in ag science at UCD – the only place to get a degree in ag at the time. He was part of the first-ever group to specialise in crop production, concentrating on cereals and crop-like vegetables such as sugar beets and potatoes.
After a brief stint teaching maths and science in a vocational school in Kilkenny, Liam joined the Farm Apprenticeship Board (FAB), a private-limited company which he says was originally “poorly funded” by
the state. He joined in the summer of 1972 as a development officer for Munster.
“I was lucky to get it and I really loved it. I was going round to all top farmers at the time, dealing with young people and I initiated quite a bit of the training that became standard afterwards,” said Liam who initially focused on oversight of students on family farm placements in Cork, Kerry, Waterford and Limerick.
Promoting farm management, accounts, business and farm planning became a crucial motivation for Liam to push the training programme forward. Through his perseverance, the Department of Agriculture allowed FAB to run courses at ag colleges during the summer months.
“No more than today, young people involved in the vocational type of agriculture are not in to book learning, they want to be out there driving tractors, making silage, measuring grass – and that is a great way to bring them into the technical field because they can see it happening,” he said.
“I started those courses to teach farm accounting to help them to do a better job with the farm account books – ag degree fellas couldn’t do it back then,” he said.
“The apprentice and the farmer at that time were serious labourers, they were out there milking cows, lambing ewes. The students were living in and that was hard on families and students, so all of the relationship issues came alive too,” he said, adding that training in Munster soon began to flourish.
“The numbers were picking up and the schemes garnered an air of respectability because we had improved it and the image improved,” he said.
In December 1977, Liam became CEO of the Farm Apprenticeship Board. “Everything changed, we got sponsorship, charged a levy on farmers and charged students as well. We began to grow massively. In the early 1980s we’d more than 300 on farm placements,” he said.
But as the Tiger economy emerged, interest in ag dried up leading to college closures in Multyfarnham, Warrenstown, and Ballinafad. Students were tempted away from farming.
“There wasn’t a management career in Ireland, there was the family farm. That was and still is the predominant farming scene here, so that was a stumbling block,” he said.
The farm apprenticeship board pushed strong for long-term leasing partnerships for graduates because he says they were “super-efficient people and the industry needed them”. Liam was inspired after a trip to New Zealand in the 1990s and started speaking out on the their farming model.
“Farmers there are not attached to land, they don’t have family-farming structures like we do. I qualified in 1969 and I heard people say there was no money in cattle farming, but I don’t see anyone getting out,” he said.
“In New Zealand a lot came from towns and went in as milkers. When they’re 45 or 50 they sell out and go, they don’t see it as a lifetime tied, they move on. I like their business approach, if it’s all passion and emotion, what good is that?” he said.
As the sector continues to grapple with income crisis, Liam firmly believes efficient management is key to survival.
“To make money you must apply management principles. The best business practice I’ve seen comes from pig farmers in Ireland. They’ve applied a very scientific, financial, accounting approach the same as NZ, from the word go they know what it’s costing per pig, they’re way ahead,” he said.
FAB eventually absolved into Teagasc, where Liam continued to focus on education until his retirement in 2012.
There's plenty of miles in Liam Myles tank yet, he's still hurling at the age of 69.
'I just love hurling and hitting a ball'
In his heyday, "Liamie" was known as a "serious engine" around the middle of the pitch. His wholehearted commitment to agriculture was mirrored in his devotion to both club and county. Although he hung up his inter-county football boots in his early-30s, Liam, who lives in Rathfarnham, continued to travel to training and matches with football club Ardfinnan and hurling club Ballybacon-Grange in Tipp, until well into his 50s. "I've played all my life. They made me manager at home one year and I said that's the only way to stop me playing," laughed Liam who set up one of the country's first players' associations with team-mate Michael 'Babs' Keating and TJ Walsh. "Babs was a winner, if he didn't play well we didn't win,"he said.
His wife Olive and four daughters travelled with him, but usually stayed in the car. "They weren't into it. In '75 we were against Kerry, Pat Spillane and Páidí Ó Sé were on. Olive was in the car wondering about all the noise. She got out to watch but Páidí won a ball and goal. Game over. I told her she should've stayed in the car," he jests.
One of his greatest GAA memories was winning a club medal later in life while marking a 15-year-old in midfield. He now plays in goals for Civil Service Hurling Club in Islandbridge. "I just love going out hurling, hitting the ball and the comradeship. I'll have to stop sometime but I don't know when that will be," he said.