Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 February 2018

After spending a lifetime working abroad this man has returned home to take over a farm

Joe Healion on his 52ac holding in Belmont, Co Offaly. Photo: Kevin Byrne
Joe Healion on his 52ac holding in Belmont, Co Offaly. Photo: Kevin Byrne

After a globetrotting life with more than a few careers under his belt, Joe Healion has returned home to start farming from scratch on a 52ac farm in Belmont, Offaly.

"I suppose you can take the man from the land but you can't take the land from the man," says Joe who was born and reared on a farm in Durrow near Tullamore. "I was never fully involved in our farm growing up so I know little about it, but I always wanted to return to the land."

One of a family of nine, Joe left Offaly in the late 1970s and his first port of call was NIHE Limerick (now UL) where he studied mechanical engineering. His career in engineering spanned 20 years and a number of locations.

He was working and living in Scotland in the 1990s when he discovered a love for teaching so he re-trained as a maths teacher and worked in Scotland and London. After a number of years of teaching he changed tack again and took on the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFAL) qualification.

Teaching English took him to the Ukraine, Russia and latterly to Colombia. "It was while I was in Colombia that I decided it was time to come home, and I began to surf the net looking for a farm," Joe says.

"I have seven sisters, some of whom are married to farmers so, along with their husbands they helped me choose. I saw this particular farm on one of the websites and asked the family to have a look at it. They did and gave their approval."

Joe Healion with some of the young stock on the farm. Photo: Kevin Byrne
Joe Healion with some of the young stock on the farm. Photo: Kevin Byrne

Joe bought the property without even seeing it; in fact the first day he set foot on it he already owned it. He made a good choice. Located two miles from Belmont in West Offaly, it is reached by a fine gravel avenue through a lovely field of lush grass. The farmhouse is a neat bungalow and the yard, set away from the house, has a series of modern sheds around a concrete apron.

"I bought the place lock, stock and barrel; the tractor, tools, machinery, silage, the furniture in the house, everything including a seven-year supply of saved turf. I brought a duvet cover, a set of cutlery and a cup and a plate with me the day I moved in. That was all I needed," he says.

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Farming in the 21st century has been a steep learning curve for Joe.

"We had a mixed farm in Durrow, a bit of everything - spuds, sugar beet, livestock, but I left there in 1970s when things were much simpler. I used to help with the work but I didn't know much about the mechanics of farming or the decision making."


He is amazed at the paperwork associated with contemporary farming. "I worked in advanced technology for years and I found that easier. It takes a lot of work to get up to speed with the bureaucracy and it is very confusing," he says.

His first encounter with agricultural bureaucracy involved getting a herd number. "Everyone was helpful, all the officials, but the system was awkward. I had to apply to the office in Cavan, they sent it on to Tullamore, an inspector was sent from Tullamore to inspect the place and talk to me and his report was sent back to Cavan."

Within six weeks he had his herd number but then there were various other schemes with which to become familiar: the Basic Payment Scheme, the ANC scheme and others. "They keep changing all the time and it is difficult to know what the latest version of a scheme is. Ninety percent of what I have learned I've gleaned from websites such as Teagasc and the Department and also from web forums."

But Joe is undaunted by the challenge. "I have a basic philosophy by which I do the things I enjoy doing," he says. "Success comes with enjoyment. In farming I am trying to establish what I enjoy doing. I started with 10 store bullocks and 10 bull calves.

"I like working with young animals and I reckon I'll concentrate on the calf-to-beef operation. This year is experimental so I bought Friesian bull calves from a dairy farmer, there is no great risk in those as I learn the ropes."

He is aware that a 52ac holding is not a viable farm, "If I had a young family I wouldn't even think about doing this and I certainly wouldn't go into debt for a farm," he says. "My challenge is to make a modest living on it. I will rear the calves to nine months or yearlings, I have the silage to do it, and then I'll review it."

By far the most positive part of the experience for him has been the kindness, generosity and welcome from the neighbours, "If the bureaucracy was the unexpected negative, the neighbours are the unexpected positive," he says.

"I have received a fantastic, warm welcome from the people around here. Their advice and their support are practical and down to earth.

For instance last week my calves got the scour and the neighbours were great, and that includes the man I bought the farm from; he comes over at the drop of a hat.

"My daughter came to visit recently and the day she was leaving my car wouldn't start. Within three minutes there was a neighbour in the yard to take her to her bus."

Is there a 'plan B'? "Yes," answers Joe, " If it doesn't work out I will lease it under the new leasing arrangements. I will still own it and I can still live here among these great neighbours. One of the great pleasures is the neighbourly rural environment, it's the icing on the cake."

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