Darragh McCullough: 'I'm doing it for love and sheer pig-headedness when there's little chance of making a buck'

Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

I have had a little Road to Damascus moment. For years I've been asking suckler farmers why they don't switch to more profitable systems like contract rearing, forestry or leasing, and the response has always been a genuine shrug of the shoulders, a wry smile, and a throwaway comment about suckling being something they enjoy.

I have always been baffled by the slightly fatalistic nature of these replies. Maybe it's just pig-headedness.

I know how hard it is to make a profit from farming, and the constant grind that it can be, toiling in all weathers, seven days a week, hunting a margin at the bottom of the retail food pyramid.

The notion of doing it without much hope of a return would finish me off before I'd even got out of bed.

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But in the last week I discovered a new very personal perspective on why farmers persist with what they've always done.

After crunching the numbers from the summer flower season, we made the grim conclusion that we hadn't made a red cent from the whole exercise. If anything, the €200,000 of sales had actually cost us more to produce.

I was slightly dazed for about a day after as I mentally raked over the possible flaws in the calculations.

But the truth was in the numbers, and it was an ugly one given the effort, investment and risk that the enterprise required.

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Granted, I knew that the season hadn't gone well, with a serious quality issues on one line, but we had other lines that ticked over without a hitch, so I was hopeful there would be a few shillings in the can by the time all was done.

Rather than wallow in disappointment, I resolved to come up with a better plan of action for the coming season.

We only started growing summer flowers in earnest four years ago, and during that time we have made lots of mistakes; we travelled all over the country and Europe to figure out the answers, and thought we had cracked the system by the time we hit scale with the crops this year.

But this was the year disease really decided to get going in my most valuable lines, despite our best efforts at spraying, fertility and planting regimes.

By the end of the season I knew that the only way to guarantee the quality required was to move some lines inside. A glasshouse costs about €400,000 per acre, but a tunnel costs about 10pc of that.

However, I knew that to invest in tunnels, I would need to get a three-year commitment from the supermarket to ensure that we could afford to take the plunge.

Pat Carty goes about his farm chores completely independently
Pat Carty goes about his farm chores completely independently

The request was rejected. And for the first time in my life I found myself relating with the suckler farmer.

My head was telling me that to invest in tunnels to continue growing these flowers without any medium-term commitment would be plain silly.

But my heart was pulling at me to have another go and not let all the blood, sweat and tears of hard-won experience over the last four years just go down the drain.

Surely this is the same tug-of-war that rages in beef farmers' hearts when they are advised to give up the enterprise they have worked so hard at all their lives?

Those who still keep sucklers do so as much for the contentment it brings, rather than any prospect of a return on their time or investment.

I spent some time with one of the best examples of this last weekend when I was filming with part-time suckler farmer Pat Carty in Sligo.

Pat has calved at least 25 suckler cows every year of his working life. Now 50, Pat still loves nothing better than to get out with his cows in the evenings when he's done with the part-time job selling windows.

The fact that he has done so from the confines of his wheelchair since he was paralysed in an accident 30 years ago is simply a humbling thing to witness.

Whether it is getting in and out of his John Deere loader, reaching up out of the chair to check the presentation of a calf in a cow trying to give birth, or out herding young-stock on his quad, Pat goes about all the usual chores completely independently.

More than that, he does it willingly and with total contentment.

It was a stark reminder for me that farming often isn't anything to do with the money or profitability of an enterprise.

When humans spend their entire lives seeking out contentment, farmers have a head-start on many by virtue of the land, plants and animals they get to interact with on a daily basis.

Like a lot of things in life, there's far more grey areas than black and white.

Indo Farming

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