'I want to show young women that farming is a very attractive career choice'
The 2018 Zurich Farm Insurance/Irish Independent Farmer of the Year Gillian O'Sullivan took up farming late - but has never looked back
As likely candidates for the accolade of Farmer of the Year go, Gillian O'Sullivan wasn't always a front runner. To start with, she started her career far from her family's Dungarvan farm, as a vet caring for small animals in Bray. And then there is the fact that only for a family tragedy, O'Sullivan and her husband Neil might not have gotten involved in farming at all.
In 2008 her brother Vincent passed away suddenly, and a short stay at home to help her father Michael around the farm turned into a longer stint. Finally, it became a full-time occupation.
"Winning Farmer of the Year is a really big deal for me, and for us here on the farm, because we've come a long way and it hasn't been easy. Vincent was the one who was destined to run the farm because he was the most interested in it, and the most dedicated to it - veterinary was my thing. But when he passed away there was a big decision to be made with regards to what we were going to do with the farm," says O'Sullivan.
"I came down to help my father out in the Springtime of 2009 because it was very busy, and the love affair with the place started then. Initially I went back to work and my father decided to start milking the cows once a day, just so he would be able to manage and cope for the year without having additional work pressures on him."
That decision kept the farm afloat and gave the family the space and time to make decisions. The following year, after much thought, O'Sullivan and Neil, also a vet, decided to move home and give farming a go full-time.
"We had to see if we could learn the basics. Obviously we didn't know whether either of us would be suited to it because at the time, neither of us could even milk cows," she says.
"We didn't know anything about grassland management. Neil had been working in a large animal practice over in Wales for a couple of years, so he had some experience treating cattle, but that would have been the extent of his expertise, while I focused on general veterinary and small animals."
While all this was happening, three children came along: Fionn (7), Hannah (5) and Tim (2). But when it came to the business of running a farm, O'Sullivan laughs to think back on how green the couple were.
"It is a completely different thing. We said we'd give it two years and Dad took it upon himself to teach us everything he knew. In the meanwhile we got married, started a family and we stuck at the once-a-day milking methodology, because originally in that second year it gave us just a little bit of extra time to gather ourselves, to cope and to learn the basics," she says.
Milking once a day is still an unusual approach in Ireland, but as time went on it became obvious it was working for this farm.
"We could see that some cows were more suited to it, so we decided to focus our breeding policy towards that. After three or four years, we could see that we were back up to producing the exact same kilos of milk solids once a day as they had been producing twice a day," says O'Sullivan.
Around this time, O'Sullivan's father Michael stepped back a little to allow the young couple to take over more of the running of the farm.
"That's why this award means so much to us. We started out so clueless and it's been a massive journey. We're really proud of what we've achieved and this year we put our farm out there by hosting lots of farm walks and by speaking to lots of people," she says. "We've grown in confidence in the system that we have here and we're happy with the lifestyle it delivers."
Today, the farm's milking platform is around 41 hectares and around 100 cows are milked each day. Because of the unusual make-up of the farm - it's exceptionally hilly - the choice of cow for optimum milking was important. O'Sullivan favours smaller cows that can carry their weight a little more easily on hills, essentially a crossbreed made up of Jersey crossed with Holstein-Friesian.
The main part of the farm, where the couple's house is located, has around 17 hectares and the farm's replacements are reared here. The main milking platform is located around two miles away, and around 50 per cent of the land used is rented.
O'Sullivan credits her father with the support and guidance needed to bring them to where they are today.
"He took on the task with relish, he brought us to discussion group meetings, he got advisors involved with the farm such as our local advisor Brian Hilliard through Teagasc. Anything new and current with regards to research, he was giving it to us," she says.
"As well as that, Neil was fantastic at picking up the practical and technical aspects of farming so now the grassland management is done by him. I do a lot of the breeding, both of us milk the cows and my father does a lot of the tractor work - it's a real team effort."
Each day, the cows are milked first thing in the morning and the rest of the day starts with a cup of tea and a conference at the kitchen table.
"We put our heads together as to what's needed that day because it would be rare for all three of us to be on the farm at the same time. We have so much going on in the house with the three kids but our roles are very much interchangeable," O'Sullivan says.
She is a huge fan of farming as a career and lifestyle that compliments family life, and she would love to see more women involved in the business.
"I'm a big believer in encouraging women to get into farming. It's a big focus of mine, to have a positive influence on young women and to show them that farming is a very attractive career, even with a young family. There is nothing better in the summer than to head out with the kids to the field doing a bit of fencing or pulling some ragwort," she says.
"The kids have freedom to run around and it's safe for them. There are no animals around and there's no tractors out in the field and they can see the pure enjoyment of being close to nature and living on a farm, seeing the seasonal nature of things."
O'Sullivan is active on social media and sees technology as an enormous enabler for people engaged in farming.
"I have found using Twitter to be a very positive experience. I've met loads of people through it both online and in person. It's opened up a lot of new avenues for making links with other women who farm and I think that's very positive," she says.
"The ability to stay in touch with other people when you're out and about is quite empowering, because you can feel quite isolated or lonely working on your own farm. Sometimes when you turn around and are greeted by a shining sun, green grass and happy cows, you want to be able to take a picture and share it. Likewise, it's inspiring to see those pictures when other farmers do the same."
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