Darragh McCullough: 'A sense of contentment could be the biggest prize of all in this farming life'

Rugged landscape: Sheep grazing in an Icelandic meadow beside a geothermal spring
Rugged landscape: Sheep grazing in an Icelandic meadow beside a geothermal spring
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

I spent New Year's in Iceland. It's an intriguing place to visit for those with agricultural inclinations.

At first sight it resembles a snowy Connemara. Iceland is 10 times the size of Galway and Mayo combined but has a population smaller than those two counties. So think of a windswept, barren emptiness that only gets a few pitiful hours of watery daylight during the winter months. You'd be forgiven for discounting the notion that any food could be eked out of such a forlorn lump of volcanic rock in the north Atlantic.

But it's that same volcanic landscape that is also Icelandic farmers' trump card.

The collision of the American and European tectonic plates that created Iceland are still moving the very foundations of this country up to 2cm annually.

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This unleashes the geothermal energy that powers major tourist attractions such as outdoor baths, geysers and rumbling volcanoes.

It also conveniently provides free heat to any farmer interested in investing in a glasshouse.

So you can pull into farm cafes that serve up the same fare you'll get anywhere else in Europe, except that this has come out of a glasshouse around the corner in the depths of a sub-zero Nordic winter.

However, the abundant energy hasn't stopped the Icelandic farmers from charging eye-watering prices. A bowl of mushroom soup with a buffet of bread and mushroom-themed tapanades (this was a mushroom farm after all) cost €17.50. Yes, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet but there's only so much mushroom soup you'll down in a single sitting!

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Nobody likes to be sweating the price of food or drink when they're on holidays but I couldn't help ruefully noting that it was costing nearly the profit of one of my turkeys to get a bowl of soup in Iceland.

Loss leader

While I eventually got nearly all the turkeys sold, it was a bit of a struggle.

The fact that a major supermarket decided to do a big push on bronze turkeys at loss-leader prices didn't help.

Christmas trees was the other line that I started on the farm three years ago thinking they would be a good niche. But they also got caught in the supermarket price wars this year.

It's disheartening as a farmer to see every aspect of farm produce getting hammered so some exec out there can boast about an improved market share.

I often think of the real wealth that my grandad and dad's generations were able to create from pure farm output.

I was caught up in these thoughts recently when I got a good reality check from a Christmas tree grower down in Kerry.

He was showing me around the 10ac field where he had close to 20,000 trees growing away.

Despite the fact that the land was on the side of a hill, and that he had off-farm work to tend to, this grower was producing top-class product and had developed a large loyal customer base that was providing him a hell of a return on his 10 acres.

Was there any chance he could rent the land next door to increase his output I asked.

"That land was sold in the last year or so," came the instant reply.

"Were you out-bid on it?" I said.

"No, I'd no interest in it."

"Why not? Sure it hardly made more than €10,000 an acre?" I pressed.

"I'd say it didn't make much more than €5,000 an acre."

"That would've been perfect for you," I exploded thinking that this man had missed the opportunity that every farmer dreams of: buying land that can be paid off in less than 10 years from the mere farming of it.

"Nope. I'm content with what I already have," was the response that silenced all possible come-backs.

It's something that I've still to grasp, and I suspect many others along with me. Of knowing when enough is enough.

Why can't I be content with what I've already got rather than chasing the next great hope in an effort to better some ancestral ghost?

I'd like to claim that this is going to be my new goal for 2020. But that would be totally disingenuous because there's already plenty of other farming ideas bubbling away in my head.

But while I might strive to push more personal boundaries over the coming months, the concept of contentment is one I know deserves more than a passing consideration as we chalk down another year.

Indo Farming

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