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Friday 28 July 2017

Interview: Minister Andrew Doyle talks farming, politics and overcoming serious illness

Andrew Doyle, TD, in Roundwood, Co Wicklow, where his family has been farming for five generations. Photo: colin o’riordan
Andrew Doyle, TD, in Roundwood, Co Wicklow, where his family has been farming for five generations. Photo: colin o’riordan
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

It was November 1982 when 21-year-old Andrew Doyle returned home to Wicklow.

He had just completed a 12-month "life- changing" placement as part of an agricultural scholarship on vast sheep and dairy farms across New Zealand. His intention: "To tell my mother I was going back after Christmas."

What happened: "My father sent me down to the polling station. The elections were on, and we were a traditional Fine Gael family."

The upshot was that he stayed put.

PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN
PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN

The current Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture says he had no serious political aspirations in his 20s and 30s. Life revolved around farming, rugby, his wife, Ann, and their four children, Kevin, Michael, Andrew and Anna. "I'm fifth generation here on the family farm in Roundwood, Co Wicklow. Traditionally, we would have had suckler cows and sheep."

"We have around 190 acres - of which 45ac is planted, another 25ac is marginal - so we've about 120 acres of pastoral land. At one stage we were lambing 250 sheep and buying in and rearing a lot of calves.

"I've always loved farming; it's in my blood. It keeps you fit: mind, body and soul, from both cardiovascular and mental health perspectives," he says.

Macra na Feirme was also a very important outlet for the Rockwell Agricultural College graduate during his time on the Farm Apprenticeship Scheme. "I joined the local Macra in Kilkenny and Tullamore to get to know youngsters in the area - it was a brilliant social outlet."


PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN
PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN

His native club, Rathdrum Macra, will always hold a spot close to his heart. "It's where I met my wife. She was involved in All-Ireland debating teams. We started going out but she wouldn't let me go watch her in action - she said I made her too nervous," he laughs.

Although he grew up in a strong GAA household, he was more drawn to rugby. "I think my shape, my temperament and my skill levels were more suited to rugby. I played with Waterpark RFC in Kilkenny and Rathdrum RFC."

He also played with the famed Canterbury Club, Christchurch. Looking back, he says applying for the prestigious Stephen Cullinan Scholarship is the "best thing I ever did".

"It was a really eye-opening experience - I just clicked with it. I was in the deep south of the South Island, in an isolated rural area, but there was a strong community of farmers.

PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN
PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN

"The first one was a sheep farm of 350ac, 1200 ewes, crops, wheat. Then I moved to a 670ac sheep farm. It was bloody hard work.

"I got a truck licence so I was moving fertiliser, livestock and wool - some of the farmers were ruthless; you are stretched."

He says the most important thing he learned about himself was that his capacity for work was far greater than he had ever imagined. As for farming, the Kiwis' "very progressive and pragmatic" approach to grassland management, fencing, fertiliser and animal welfare made a lasting impact. "I came home with the intention of going back but events happened and I never did."

Although he was a "resistant participant" in local politics, he got pulled in and a spark ignited. However, a sudden illness in the early 1990s set him back for a while. He was diagnosed with Cushing's disease - a rare condition caused by excess steroid hormones in the body.

PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN
PIC COLIN O'RIORDAN

"It leads to hyperactivity, muscle waste, fluid build-up, fat build-up, fatigue… it's quite horrendous, with all sorts of side-effects - the moon-shaped face, skin pigmentation and all that goes with it. It wears you out," he says.

After undergoing a successful operation, and a prolonged period of recovery, he bounced back with a new drive to live every moment to the full.

"I had to spend 18 months building the muscles back up through dogged determination. My physical transformation from 1987 to 1992 is startling. All my muscles were gone; they had deteriorated, the fat fell off.

"I went from a fit and sturdy 13.5 stone to 12 stone of skin and bone, and then back up with a bit extra for insurance."

Farming also played a key role in his rehabilitation. "We had calves and cows in and I'd be doing press-ups and chin-ups out of the girders watching over them.

"The physicality of farming gave me the liberty to build up my strength again. Lambing would sort anyone's fitness. I even started training with Laragh GAA team."

By then he was secretary of Wicklow IFA as well as secretary of Laragh GAA Club and he sought election to Wicklow County Council, where he served from 1999 to 2007.

"Local people needed a voice and if you are asked to represent them, that's what you should do. I spent eight years on the council before I became a TD, and now I'm approaching my 10th anniversary."

He says that being in power during the recession brought some dark days. "The biggest challenge was taking money out of people's pockets and then facing them.

"Some days were horrendous: you wouldn't want to go through it a second time, but it had to be done. It probably wasn't done perfectly - the alternatives on offer weren't workable."

He says that the agri sector led the way. "Farming had been described as a sunset industry but it was one of the places where we could actually prosper and we did out of necessity.

"It was back to basics to reboot the economy. The life of agriculture and a period of unhindered growth put us back on course.

"The sector became so important during that time," he concludes, "but the fear is that it is taken for granted again."

'The UK will always want food and we have always delivered'

The Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture contends that dry stock farmers in particular are failing to fully utilise and optimise their holdings.

"There is so much waste - part of it is in land management, part of it is in livestock management and part of it is business management.

"Unless we develop a model that says we can produce food, increase production and aim towards carbon neutrality over time, our land will never reach its full potential."

He stresses that if farmers maximise the efficiency of land use, they will be able to use less land to produce every bit as much, and more.

"We can use the marginal land to produce other crops, be it energy crops, be it trees, and then you can get credits from that. I firmly believe that we're going to move that way," he says.

The Junior Minister for Agriculture says he is speaking from experience. He first planted his own land in 1992, then planted for a second time last year.

"The land that was planted during the first plantation was the most marginal; in the middle of it there is a commonage and bog holes where we essentially used to lose animals.

"It was just land that wasn't really being utilised and this is me using it to its better potential," says the Wicklow farmer.

"The trees have done really well in it so it was definitely the right decision. We have a mixed species of Douglas fir, Scots pine, Spruce and Alder."


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At the time, the father of four, who regularly mountain bikes through the evergreen forests of the Garden County, didn't qualify for premium payments.

"We could do it with the establishment grant and it just seemed to make sense in terms of the overall farm enterprise.

"It's a huge addition, even if you're just looking at balance sheets - it doubles the value of the land and it brings in a tax-free premium for 15 years, and it will be there for somebody and that's what I've always been advocating."

He encourages all farmers to consider forestry as a way of improving farm incomes.

"Farmers should use the opportunity with the forestry programme, and the money can be used either then to supplement income or invest in other areas of the farm," he says.

When asked what changes will come to agriculture in the years ahead, Minister Doyle - who confirmed his intentions to run in the election - says all farms will have to be managed like a business, especially with the threat of Brexit on the horizon.

"There are various different incentives and taxations that can help manage the business, and then farmers will have to look closely at the markets. The UK are still going to want to import; they will still be hugely important but we still must be prepared to look outside that.

"Where we need to land on Brexit is with as close a deal as the arrangement we currently have with the UK and Europe.

"Uncertainty is the biggest concern I have but, at the same time, the UK will always want food and we've always satisfied the market. We've weaned our way away from total dependency on them, but it's still our biggest market for agri food, at 43pc."

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