Agriculture Minister talks about helping out on the family farm in Donegal, ‘stretching my capabilities’ on his CV to get a job and the long-term importance of beef farming
‘The past week was a ‘seldom’ one so therefore a great one for me — I got to spend real time on the family farm.”
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue helped make silage in Gleneely, near Carndonagh on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula.
“The home farm is hugely important to me. I’m the eldest of a family of six, and the farm as well as a shop were what got us all reared and ready for the world.
“And having grown up and worked on the farm, I feel it gives me, in my position as Minister, a sense of what makes farmers tick.”
The McConalogue farm is typical of farms in Donegal and along the western seaboard: a small suckler and sheep holding with a mixture of uplands and lowlands.
“When I was growing up, farms in the area were much more full-time in their nature,” he says. “The transition from more full-time to more part-time operations around me has helped shaped my vision as Minister.
“I want as many farmers as possible to have the opportunity to farm full-time if it is viable to do so, and I want to design schemes and measures to help them to do that.”
After graduating from UCD, where he got his first taste of political life by serving as education officer, before a period working as a Political Organiser for Fianna Fáil, McConalogue worked for a time on a cattle station in Australia.
“I landed the first day and told the farmers there that I had no problem in riding a horse — but I’d never been on one before,” he says.
“I was thinking ‘how hard could it be?’ when there was more to it! The owners saw quickly that I might have stretched my capabilities on the CV!
“It was a tremendous experience to see how farming worked out there and gave me a great appreciation of the Irish livestock system, where we place a huge emphasis on the welfare of our animals.”
McConalogue returned to run the family farm, and he was elected to Donegal County Council.
“I really enjoyed that period at home running the family farm and getting back to what I grew up doing, calving cows, lambing ewes and being at one with the rhythm of the farming year. Calving cows, lambing ewes and taking control of the place was a great feeling,” he says.
“I can’t profess to be an oracle. I might have had a longer-than-advised calving interval on some cows but we took tremendous pride in producing great Charolais, Limousin and Simmental stock.”
His brother William has since taken over the family farm and with his election to the Dáil and then his appointment as Minister, opportunities to farm have been limited. “When you have to spend a large chunk of your time in Dublin or even outside of the country while getting to do constituency work and spending time with the family, it’s hard to get to the farm very regularly but I do get down every chance I can,” the Minister says.
Good weather in the north-west over the June Bank Holiday weekend gave the McConalogues an opportunity to get the silage cut.
"Few jobs bring that same sense of satisfaction for a farmer as getting the pit covered with plastic and tyres and knowing that you’re well set for the winter.
“This winter is one we’re all watching given the illegal war in Ukraine, and that’s why I’ve put nearly €90m worth of schemes with growing more grain and encouraging the saving of silage and fodder.
"Every farmer has to think really carefully and closely about silage requirements for this winter matching what stock is on a farm with what feed needs are. The motto on farms across the county this year needs to be that what you plan to breed, you must plan to feed.”
McConalogue acknowledges that agriculture is going to evolve, under the pressure of reducing emissions.
“Agriculture has always been changing. How agriculture looks now is very different to 20 years ago,” he says.
“So I do think there will be changes to how we look in 20 years from now, but we are needed to feed a growing global population with our safe, sustainable and nutritious food.
“And I do think high-quality animal proteins backed by our excellent tillage sector will still be the backbone of the sector in 2042.
“We can continue to do this and become more sustainable. I’m convinced of that.”