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Saturday 23 February 2019

Meet the woman who gave up the vocation of nursing for farming

Bernie MacCarthy tends to her Angus herd on her farm near Kilbeggan in Westmeath. Photo: Tony Gavin
Bernie MacCarthy tends to her Angus herd on her farm near Kilbeggan in Westmeath. Photo: Tony Gavin

Last week, the nurses of Ireland braved the wintry elements in a strike calling for improved wages and working conditions.

Suckler farmer and new IFA Westmeath chair Bernie MacCarthy recalls her 30-plus years as a nurse as being challenging, but, like farming, she says nursing is a vocation.

"Nursing was very challenging. There was no balance in my life and I often worked 12- hour shifts with no break. It's the same story for nurses now," says Bernie, who is originally from a mixed and dairy farming background in Crossbarry near Bandon in Co Cork.

Bernie fondly remembers feeding calves and pigs before school on the farm, which her parents Charlie and Kitty ran, and getting her mother's 1,500 turkeys plucked and prepared for the busy Christmas market.

While Bernie loved farming in her childhood and teenage years, she decided to pursue a career in nursing.

Her career took in roles as an intellectual disability nurse in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, the Brothers of Charity in Glanmire, Co Cork, and St Mary's in Delvin, Co Westmeath.

Although Bernie enjoyed nursing, she said it had always been in the back of her mind to return to farming, so when her partner, farmer and Fianna Fail senator Paul Daly, asked her to take over the full-time running of his suckler farm in 2011, she said yes.

"I always loved farming. My brothers Tony and Brian were running dairy and suckler operations in Cork, so I still had an interest and loved helping Paul. So when Paul asked me, I decided I would take early retirement to rear the Angus herd," she says.

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The farm, which is based near Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, consists of 40 Aberdeen Angus suckler cows. While 12-hour days are sometimes the norm on the farm, Bernie says she is much happier working outdoors and taking care of the animals.

"I actually feel I have more of a balance with farming than I ever did with nursing. Hail, rain or snow, I'll be out with the cattle," she says.

Breeding

A selective breeding policy is very important to Bernie. She purchased some of the original females of the herd from the Michael O'Leary-owned Gigginstown herd a number of years ago.

"We usually go to his sale every year. They're a very placid animal and the nicest meat in the world. We're very interested in getting the best offspring for the herd," she says.

As a farmer on the ground, Bernie feels that "suckler farmers are on their knees" and need to be supported, especially given what's happening with Brexit and the uncertainty about CAP reform.

"Suckler farmers are struggling with commodity prices and last year, fodder was a big challenge. It's important that we can get a strong CAP from Europe to ensure sustainable farming continues," she points out. "We need confirmation on Brexit soon too - 75pc of our beef goes to the UK. Farmers are really worried about the outcome and March 29 is fast approaching."

Bernie adds that Paul, her neighbours and the local vet are a great help whenever she needs a hand around the farm, but most of the time she is able to manage by herself.

"I've never felt held back with heavy lifting or calving or using machinery. I've always used machinery to help me around the farm and am well able to drive the tractor as well."

Bernie was recently elected the first female chairperson of Westmeath IFA, taking over from Delvin dairy farmer Kenneth Bray.

She's now the seventh female county chair on the IFA council, which is the highest number of female chairs the organisation has ever had.

Bernie says she has never felt stigma as a female farmer and was given a job to do on her first night attending a branch meeting in Kilbeggan 17 years ago.

"My neighbour John Conroy pushed me to attend a meeting and I loved being apart of it. Ten years ago, I was elected branch secretary and four years ago, I was elected county secretary. I have always felt that I have been an equal," she recalls. "I'm determined to be a voice for female farmers. We want to be heard. Years ago, the IFA was very male-dominated but we won't sit back any longer. I'm the only woman on the IFA Animal Health Committee and I wouldn't mind if a few more joined me," she adds.

Animal welfare

Bernie feels that her interest in patient welfare and attention to detail, which she mastered during her time nursing, have added to her skills as a farmer and input on the Animal Health Committee.

"I'm always very vigilant when it comes to welfare, especially with calves. TB and antibiotics are also an interest of mine. It's important that animals get the right dose at the right time and that they are diagnosed properly," she explains. "Vaccinations are the best solution to preventing diseases, not antibiotics."

While Bernie has an interest in policy issues facing farmers and her partner Paul sits on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, she says that the couple try not to talk about politics.

"I'm very busy with my work and Paul is very busy with his work in the Seanad. He does what he has to do and I do what I have to do.

"For the most part, we don't discuss our opinions on issues. We do try to keep it as separate as we can," she says.

With 35 cows due to calve in a matter of weeks, Bernie is looking forward to the next four years, alongside new secretary Margaret Henson.

"Focusing on getting young people - men and women - more involved in the organisation is a big aim of ours. It's a very busy county."

In her spare time, Bernie enjoys taking part in ploughing competitions and came sixth in the farmerette competition at the National Ploughing Championships last year.

"I don't get to practise as much as I'd like, but it's great fun. I'm an outdoors person all the way and enjoy a bit of competition."

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