Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

'Prices are on the floor but you have to stick with it'

My week: Stephen Shorten

Stephen Shorten and his sister Fiona on the family farm in Enniskeane, Co Cork. Photo: Denis Boyle
Stephen Shorten and his sister Fiona on the family farm in Enniskeane, Co Cork. Photo: Denis Boyle

Ken Whelan

Stephen Shorten is one of agriculture's natural optimists - taking this year's poor prices for both milk and crops on the chin, and stressing that he is fully intent on "sticking with farming".

He farms in partnership with his sister Fiona on what his describes as a " typical fragmented West Cork farm" at Enniskeane, between Bandon and Bantry, where they milk cows and grow crops on 340 acres - including the home farm and owned and rented land between three and four miles away.

The Shortens milk some 50 pedigree British Friesians - The Palace Anne herd - and supply Bandon Co-Op with some 1,200 litres a unit, as well as planting some 200 acres with spring barley, winter barley and wheat and growing some beet and maize crops for neighbouring farmers on a contract basis.

"The milk price is under pressure, but to be fair to the co-ops, they are getting every cent available to the farmers. I took the forward price this year and if I didn't, I probably wouldn't break even," Stephen says.

On the tillage front, where he is averaging 3.2 tonnes an acre on his crops, he says "things are very tough at the moment and prices are on the floor. But you have to stick with it and wait for a good year."

This is the fourth generation of the Shortens to farm in the Enniskeane area and while Stephen, who is single and in his fifties, was a farmer from the get-go, his sister Fiona only took up farming 15 years ago.

She packed in her previous full-time job as a national school teacher when she inherited some land from a relation. "She gave up the teaching for farming and it's better lifestyle," Stephen says without a hint of irony in his voice.

Stephen also works along with two employees collecting the "sludge cakes" (biomass blocks extracted from the 2m gallons a day taken by Carberry from the River Bandon to manufacture dairy products before returning the cleaned water to the river) and spreading the biomass material on farming land throughout the Cork region. It takes up two weeks a month from January to December.

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To describe Stephen as farming activist and innovator would be an understatement.

His off-farm career is as busy as his on-farm work, having recently served as a vice chairman on the National Dairy Council and undertaking ongoing board commitments at Bandon Co-Op, Bandon Vale and the local mart, to say nothing of his boardroom appointment to the Clona Dairy concern in Clonakilty.

And if that wasn't enough, he also spearheaded various alternative energy projects in West Cork, including the initially very successful Gro-Oil company which produced energy from rapeseed oil.

The company's customer base included the EBS, An Post and a wind energy company.

The Gro Oil project was flying from 2006 until the tax breaks for alternative energy project were abolished by the Government because of the economic crisis in 2010 - while the wind farm project was blown away because of a lack of enthusiasm for the wind blade in the region.

"I am a great believer in alternative energy and it is something that will have to be addressed in terms of climate change and emissions. The wind project was based on a similar one in Germany which was supported by everyone in the area.

"If these projects are seen to benefit the local community in a co-op type way they will have a future but you have to persuade people in advance of starting these projects," he says.

Stephen believes the PR campaigns associated with wind farms projects have been disastrous.

When he has spare time, it is devoted to following the fortune of the Le Mans car racing tournament which he regularly attends - though not for the past two years.

"I don't particularly like Formula One - it's too commercial - but I like the Le Mans race and I hope to get there again, though maybe not for a year or two because I have commitments here," he points out.

One of his next projects is to take part in the rural revival campaign which aims to renew the countryside and rural towns and villages.

Indo Farming