Wednesday 28 September 2016

Darragh McCullough: I suffer from that classic farmer ailment - intense anxiety when one is not usefully employed

Darragh McCullough (38) is a farmer. He is also the deputy editor of the farming supplement with the 'Irish Independent' and presenter on RTE's 'Ear To The Ground'. He lives in Gormanston, Co Meath, with his wife, Aoife, a primary school teacher

Emily Hourican

Published 31/08/2015 | 02:30

Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy

I normally get up at 6.30am, and I am a real morning person. I wake up ready to go. My wife Aoife isn't, so she tries to avoid me first thing. We live in Gormanston, Co Meath, which is part of what I call the Meath Riviera. Breakfast is always porridge. I discovered porridge about four years ago, when I discovered triathlons, and realised that bad food wasn't filling the void; I needed real food. Porridge is the essence of goodness. The trick is, you have to mess with it. I put in stewed plums, honey, cinnamon, nuts, nutmeg, lemon zest; anything to cover up the taste of porridge.

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Then, if I'm working in the Irish Independent, I get on my bike and cycle the 40km to the office in Dublin. It takes about an hour and a half, and it sets me up: free gym, jump into the shower when I arrive, and I'm ready. I don't cycle home though, I put the bike on the train.

I work for the paper four days a week, but one of those days I like to be out and about, meeting real people who tell me real things, not in front of a screen. I go to farms around the country, so I might be in Galway, west Cork, anywhere. I eat, sleep and live farming. When I'm in the office, I'm doing what a journalist does: writing, on the phone, trying to decipher the notes I took in the rain the day before. I love losing myself in writing a story. The monks who did The Book of Kells used to mediate while drawing - I feel a bit like that.

It was luck got me into this. I was studying Agricultural Science in UCD, and I was all set to come home after I finished, and be a farmer, and work eight days a week. But I had this hesitation. I guess I found sitting on a tractor or working in a milking parlour a bit lonely.

I was at a farmers' discussion group one evening, and one of the guys there had worked in radio. I asked him if he knew anyone I could be of some assistance to. He gave me a number for someone in RTE, Eric Donald, who is now head of PR for Teagasc.

Very uncharacteristically, I rang this number repeatedly, until finally Eric lifted the phone. He said, 'Come over and meet me . . .' He wanted somebody who could put a microphone in front of farmers and speak to them in farm-speak and ask relevant questions.

That was about a week before my exams. I came in on the day after my exams finished - with a big head on me, having been on the lash all night long - to a training session full of people who had been in broadcasting for 10 years, and me, a complete duck out of water. I was mortified. But we went from there. I had to get elocution lessons, to which my mum said, 'I always told you, you never pronounce your "th's"'.

Because I can get into RTE in 40 minutes, I was able to stay working on the farm, although really I'm more of an administrator. We've built up a daffodil enterprise - we have 60 acres - with other outdoor-flowers lines to come, and we're exporting to Holland and selling to supermarkets. We also have a mobile farm unit - something to show kids where their food comes from - that we bring around to schools as part of the Agri-Aware trust, to try and reconnect people with their food.

With my dad, I'm also a partner in a dairy farm. I pulled back a little from dairy farming because I thought, 'Why work seven days a week, when you can have weekends to yourself?' Not that I ever do have weekends off, because I suffer from that classic farmer ailment - intense anxiety when one is not usefully employed. Even on Saturdays, I'm up before 7am. My wife, Aoife, is a teacher. She understands that weekends are for living, and her big battle in life is to get me to see that. She has brought me into some semblance of normality, though - on Sundays, I'm banned from working.

Presenting Ear To The Ground works in harmony with the farm. This will be my 15th season, and it's a day or so a week, for four or five months of the year. It tends to rev up in September, and gear down in March. When the farm is quiet, I'm busy with Ear To The Ground; when it stops, I'm busy with the farm. It's nice. I'm also a brand ambassador for Skoda, and from October I'll will be presenting a farm-talks series in dealerships around the country. I have a lot of balls in the air. When it's working, it's fab, when its not, it can be uncomfortable. But I volunteered for everything, so I feel lucky.

For lunch, I generally nip out and get a takeaway Thai curry or a sandwich. I used to eat at my desk until someone pointed out, rightly, that doing so was pretty gross, so now I wolf it down in the kitchen, often while on the phone. As a journalist, you're constantly on - checking emails, sending texts - its not very healthy. You're supposed to switch off while you eat.

I get the train home at about 6.30pm; it takes 42 minutes. When I get home, I have grub with Aoife. She makes really ace salads. At first, I thought she was messing when she started putting grapes and nuts and things in salads, but I have come round to it. If it's a nice evening, we might go for a walk on the beach. I never used to appreciate the beach; it's only in my 30s that I've come round to it. Gormanston beach is almost forgotten about - there are very few down there, just a big expanse of sand. It's the sound of the sea that I love. Water, swimming and being around the sea, that's the way for me to switch off.

We got rid of our telly - it stopped working, and we kept planning to get another, but we just never did. Instead, we might watch Netflix. We go through phases - at the moment it's an hour of Parenthood every evening, followed by an hour of reading, and then lights out at 10.30pm. On of my biggest talents is the ability to sleep. I am an ace sleeper; at the drop of a hat, anywhere. Aoife is so envious, she's a very light sleeper.

The 23rd series of 'Ear To The Ground' starts on RTE One this autumn

See skoda.ie/news/farmtalks

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