'The young people have no incentive to remain on the land'

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Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed must give a top priority to stemming the flight from the land by young people, says Mayo suckler and sheep farmer June Burke.

She believes that small holdings along the western seaboard will be left empty unless a serious initiative is undertaken by the Department to keep young people on the land.

"Farmers in the west can see what is happening. The younger generation are just not around, what with educational opportunities and new jobs," says June, who has worked on the farm all her life and also ran a florist enterprise in her local town of Westport up to a few years ago.

"The young people are simply leaving the land. They have no incentive to remain.

"Something has to be done about this before there are a lot of small holdings along the western seaboard with 'For Sale' signs outside them or left overgrown and unused."

June seconds what the late political commentator John Healy used to tell the government of his day about farming in the west: make sure you take care of the farmers because they will take care of the land and the tourists.

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June, who farms with her husband Ken on her parents' holding at Knappagh outside Westport, practises what she preaches.

Four years ago she transferred the bigger and original family farm on the opposite side of Westport to their then 30-year-old son Trevor, who was the only one of three siblings who took an interest in farming having completed his agricultural studies at the old Multyfarnham College.

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His sister Rachel is a teacher while his brother Lesley works in the construction industry in Australia.

The Burkes are happy with the prices they have been receiving for their sucklers and sheep at the local marts and June herself is happy with the way the cottage woollen industry she has developed at Knappagh.

She spins the wool from her sheep and sells it under the brand name Back to Back - "from the back of the sheep to the back of the customer" - which is available in six woollen shops in the Westport area. "I enjoy spinning the wool and it is popular with tourists who visit the area," June explains.

June believes that women make as good farmers as men and points to her own on-farm work and that of her nearby sister-in-law Sheena.

"Nowadays there's no great difference when it comes to men or women on the farm, and maybe the women are even better in some cases. It's a hard job, a job you must concentrate on," she adds.

Off farm her interests are varied. Like pretty much every Mayo person, she just says "Ah" when the fortunes of the county team and their valiant efforts to rid themselves of the widow's curse are mentioned.

And the flower enthusiast in June ensures that she is very active in the Clew Bay Garden Trail - a local group of gardeners who invite the general public to view their botanical efforts during the summer.

When we were talking last week June was busy putting the finishing touches to the half-acre garden adjoining the farm. There are about 12 gardeners in the Westport area involved in the group.

"It's my turn next Sunday. You can get up to 250 visitors and we show them the gardens and plants and have tea and cakes. It's done for charity and we have raised over €70,000 for various charities since we began," adds June.

In conversation with Ken Whelan

Indo Farming