Darragh McCullough: 'Treading the fine line between being under capacity and being competely overwhelemed'
I was lucky enough to be part of the action on RTÉ's Big Week on the Farm last week. It was only up the road from me, on the farm of Ivan Curran, who runs a state-of-the-art tillage and potato operation just outside Stamullen, Co Meath.
I had to laugh when one of the audience members turned around to me during an interview with Ivan, who was explaining that the only part of the farm under grass was the top of a hill, where it was too rocky for the deep ploughing required for potatoes.
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"Sure that fella wouldn't know a rock if it hit him square in the face!" she whispered furiously. Naturally, her own high-altitude farm was colouring her opinions.
There were plenty of familiar faces behind the scenes, and another man I know from reporting on farm repossessions surprised me when he told me that he was as busy as ever advising farmers struggling with debts.
Having come through a bit of a financial wringer myself over the last decade, I had mistakenly assumed that most of the legacy debts dogging farmers had been washed through the system by now.
Instead, it appears that quietly behind the scenes there are plenty of farm families still in danger of being over-whelmed by debt, either from off-farm investments or borrowings to drive on the farm itself.
It reminded me that everybody is dealing with the same stuff to some extent, no matter where they are. I consider myself blessed to be farming light land in east Meath, where we get half the amount of rain compared to the western part of the country.
And yet I've found myself barely coping with the farming workload that came at me this summer.
The irony of this situation has never been far from my mind. My sole focus here for the last decade, and certainly since I came home full-time three years ago, has been to increase sales in the hope that profits would follow.
Every year we've been hatching plans to try another crop, rent that bit of extra land, and diversify into things like Christmas trees and turkeys to ensure cash-flow through the hungry patch in the winter.
And every year I was convinced that we could do more, grow more, and sell more. Every year until this year.
As often is the case, there were unforeseen circumstances that tipped the balance. We have been struggling all year to maintain the quality in our flowers that our customers demand.
Up to now this hadn't posed any serious issue for us, and this year we did the same thing as 2018 and 2017: we doubled our area to push up sales volumes.
But a disease got in during the peak of the season and we've been trying everything to break the cycle - fungicides, foliar feeds, fertigation and trace element supplementation.
In the end the answer was to change field. But of course that was no silver bullet because while you are waiting for the crop in the new field to ripen, we had to make do with the compromised crop.
There were lots of angry emails cancelling orders, stressed phone-calls as demands for credit on unsold product emerged, and threats about future contracts.
Meanwhile, all the other activities on the farm needed to keep moving too. What should have been a straightforward harvest of 90 acres of wheat has dragged on as combines struggled to pass under bridges that Irish Rail suddenly decided to clad in scaffolding.
At the same time weather broke and I had committed to my dairy partner to getting a wheat field converted into grass for the dairy herd. Every baler and bale-handler in the country had suddenly become subsumed under their own tsunamis of work. To top it all off, about 600 tonne of onions suddenly came ready for harvesting and were jostling with the wheat and my daffodil bulbs for space in the sheds.
It didn't help that we'd just come off a whole month of 24-hour weekend shifts to try to get daffodil bulbs packed in time for a customer's promotions. The fact that the packaging required was on a boat somewhere between Sri Lanka and Rotterdam was of no concern to them. They just wanted the product... yesterday.
My poor turkeys became an after-thought. But they have been very considerate in their determination to stay alive and make me a bob in December.
My wife was less forgiving. "What's all this really for?" she asked me as I arrived in shattered one night at nearly 10pm.
What upset me was that I didn't really have a good answer for her. What shocked me was how fine a line there seems to be between being under capacity and being completely overwhelmed. The farmer in me clings to the fact that there's always next year.
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