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Thursday 23 November 2017

'I had as much to say as any man in the room' - Agri Aware CEO Deirdre O'Shea

Agri Aware’s new CEO, Deirdre O’Shea, talks to our reporter about farming, football and her vision for the organisation

Agri Aware CEO Deirdre O'Shea pictured at the Family Farm developed by Agri Aware and Dublin Zoo. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Agri Aware CEO Deirdre O'Shea pictured at the Family Farm developed by Agri Aware and Dublin Zoo. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Age has never been an obstacle for Deirdre O'Shea.

Sitting comfortably behind her desk as the newly appointed CEO of Agri Aware, the vibrant 27-year-old attributes her extraordinary success to an inner self-belief and drive that has been handed down for generations.

Seven decades ago, her grandfather Michael O'Shea - a distant relative of Kerry football legend Jack O'Shea - journeyed from Cahersiveen on the Iveragh Peninsula to the quaint rural village of Arles in Co Laois to set up a pig farm.

"My desire to achieve is biological. My grandfather bought his first sow in the late 1950s and by 1981 he had 80 sows and was selling weaners. Today my dad has built it up to 2,500 sows," she says.

"He has a very strong drive and work ethic. He never forced it on us, but I observed him closely as a child. I took stock of how he ran the business and I wanted to be like him. His success pushed me to go and do something that would make a difference."

Growing up with four brothers, three of whom are commercial pig farmers, Deirdre never shied away from the hard graft of raising and breeding domestic pigs.

However, the birth of a new litter was always a special time at the homestead - which is divided into several units across Offaly, Carlow and Laois. The O'Sheas produce approximately 65,000 pigs annually. The sows are all Landrace/Large White cross. "Like most women, I was drawn to the farrowing side where the sows are having new piglets - I really enjoyed that area - but I'd have no problem getting stuck in to any job," she says.

Her family's deep-rooted GAA lineage, including two uncles who played for Laois, also rubbed off on the young powerhouse, who has played football at club, college and county level all her life.

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"I've always been into sport, My mother is a massive GAA fan so it was very natural for me. As soon as I get out onto the field, whether training or playing a match, I just forget about everything - it is a great escape; it's great to be part of a team."

After completing a degree in human nutrition at UCD, Deirdre knew lab work wasn't her forte. Following a short stint as an agri-advisor at Ulster Bank, Deirdre was appointed on the IFA Pigs' Committee executive.

She was just 22.

"You shouldn't let age prevent you from doing anything. If you have the self-belief and confidence, why not just go for it?

"Lots of people asked about challenges being a young woman in the IFA but I grew up with four brothers, big into sport and running a family business, so I just didn't let anything phase me.

"I could walk into a room with 250 people and 245 could be males but I wouldn't be fearful and, anyway, I had as much say as any man in the room.

"There is a shift away from that: more females are getting involved and I really encourage it. The women in the organisation were very supportive of me, as were the men; there was a really good support structure," she says.

Highlighting the Irish pig sector was central to her mission. "Pig meat is the third most important agricultural output after dairy and beef and I think that is often forgotten. There are less than 300 commercial pig farmers left, and only 50pc of our pig meat is actually exported, so it is crucial that we advocate to the general public," says the St Brigid's player, who regularly commuted up and down to Laois to play football for her club and county.

"Sport allows you to switch off: you need to have a balance; you need switch off time and that's where I get my energy."

She also spent a year as executive of the IFA Forestry Committee. "I was very interested in educating farmers on forestry. They don't look at a tree in the same way they look at a bullock and say, 'What is this worth?'"

However, she says walking the corridors of the farm organisation during the height of the IFA pay controversy was a daunting experience.

"It was a difficult time for the IFA. I was the secretary to the Con Lucey implementation review group, and that committee was needed. You must have adequate structures in place for any organisation and it was a great learning curve. I think IFA have come back stronger."

After four years at the farm centre in Bluebell, Deirdre felt that educating others on agriculture was her true calling. And so, when the position of executive director of agri-educational body Agri Aware, based just across the road, opened up, she grabbed the opportunity.

"I instantly thought, 'This is an area where I can really excel and bring something new.' I always felt most comfortable out informing farmers on different issues and schemes. I knew it would be the right fit for me."

With three months under her belt, Deirdre is very focused on her vision for the charitable trust, funded by the Irish farming and agri-food industry.

"My plan for Agri Aware is to effectively communicate the image and understanding of farming and agri-food to as many people as possible - especially those not exposed to it.

"The ways people consume information is constantly changing so it's about tapping into new spaces.

"I want Agri Aware to be the go-to body, the go-to communicator based on expert research," she concludes.


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