Geraldine Keenan is the fifth generation to farm her holding in Ballindine, Claremorris, Co Mayo, where she has just finished harvesting her first Sitka spruce and pine plantation.
The western farm has seen many changes over the years, having transitioned from dairy to beef in 1998, and now Geraldine is utilising the resources the generations before her put in place, while also adding a touch of diversity.
“I worked in banking for years, but left my job in 2010 to take over the farm full time,” says Geraldine. “We now run a mixed enterprise farm of sucklers and sheep with the addition of a few hens.”
Last week was particularly busy for Geraldine as she finished her first ever timber harvest.
“Dad planted two plantations in 1990. He wanted to make as much use of the farmland as possible and wanted to add a different type of security for generations going forward,” she says.
“He planted thousands of Sitka spruce trees in the hope that they would all do well.”
Unfortunately, some of the initial plantation succumbed to late frost over the next few years, ultimately leading Geraldine’s father, Martin, to replace what he had lost with pine trees.
“We found ourselves with quite a bit of pine this harvest, which isn’t as profitable as the Sitka spruce,” says Geraldine. “Sitka spruce is more valuable but proved that bit harder to grow. We’ve had a good harvest though.”
Before beginning the felling and harvesting process, Geraldine had a few hoops to jump through and regulations to meet.
“It wasn’t a quick process by any means. It took two years of planning and a lot of paperwork,” she says. “Dad had got advice from the Western Forestry Co-Op when he was planting the trees, so we got back in touch with them when we decided to harvest the timber.
We found out that we needed to build a forestry road before the trees could be touched and needed to submit a planning application to the local county council in order to get approval for this.
“Naturally, trees can’t obstruct a public road during the felling or harvesting process so we had to build a road through the farm. We needed to create an appropriate space for lorries to collect the timber and to turn comfortably,” says Geraldine.
After submitting the planning application, which was approved, an engineer inspected the road when complete. Then it was time for the felling to be done and organising transportation of the timber, which the co-op helped with. This week saw the last of the timber come down and be graded on Geraldine’s farm.
“There’s four different grades — pulp, stake, pallet and sawlog,” she says. “Each different grade goes to a different mill, so it’s been busy with lorries coming and going.”
Like many farmers, Geraldine is putting in the first of her stock this week. “We’ve half our bullocks in already and this week and next week will see much of the rest of the stock going in, including the in-calf heifers and weanlings,” she says.
“We’re just after squeezing some of the young bullocks, so that’s why they’re in already. If the weather is mild and dry enough, they might get out again, but we’ll just have to see how things go.”
Geraldine’s husband, Tom, takes care of all the seasonal farm work, while her father is still quite active too.
“Tom does all of the big, physically demanding jobs like power-harrowing, agitating, and spreading the slurry and spreading the fertiliser.
“We’re fortunate he can do all this because otherwise we’d have to hire contractors. Dad is still great and helps me with all the fencing,” says Geraldine.
“Our son and daughter, Martin and Eimear, are also very interested in the farm and will be a great help as years go on too.”
The Keenans buy in lambs every autumn and keep them until the following spring. Geraldine says they help to clean up the ground after the cattle.
“We’ve just bought this year’s lambs and will feed them off grass until January when we will start adding meal into the diet too. We’ll sell them then in early spring,” she says.
Next on the agenda for Geraldine is dosing the cattle and with winter upon us, Geraldine is anticipating another busy year.
“We’re glad to get the timber harvest complete before the dead of winter. The plantation was on bog land, which gets quite wet during the winter months so we’d have had to leave it until next year if we hadn’t got it finished this week,” she says.
Geraldine has the help of an unusual farm dog, a miniature Jack Russell. “Tiny is as good as any sheepdog — she follows me everywhere through the farm and gets stuck into all the farm duties.”