Why this mobile farm doesn't sugarcoat the realities of farming even when accused of being a 'murderer' by children
'They say 'never work with children or animals' - Eoin works with both at the same time," says Olivia Duff wryly of her husband Eoin Sharkey.
Eoin runs a mobile farm, which he takes to primary schools and public events from the couple's free-range Maperath Farm, outside Kells, Co Meath. He stresses that it is an educational enterprise, not a 'petting farm'. The mission is to teach children (and their teachers) in city, town and even country schools about farming. The slogan is 'bringing the farmyard into the schoolyard'.
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"There's no sugarcoating," says Eoin. "I encourage the children to ask about what happens to the animals; I tell them that eventually, I am going to eat all the animals I have with me. All the animals I bring are productive farm animals; none of them are pets.
"That's what we're trying to get across to children - they are all part of the food chain. We don't dress it up; none of the animals have names. They have an ear tag with a number - that's what the farmer calls them.
"Depending on the time of year, I bring a calf, a ewe and lambs, a sow and piglets, geese, ducks, a hen with chicks, a rooster, a goat.
"We are trying to educate children about the ethical production of food: what each animal is, what it takes to look after each animal, what each animal produces, and how it ends up in your kitchen."
Eoin, who also offers schools a chicken fostering service, says it is extremely rare for any children to get upset when they make the connection between the cute animals and the meat on their plates. "Children have a natural curiosity, they want to know," he says. "It's not traumatising if you do it subtly."
But occasionally, Eoin is confronted by vegetarian children who object to what he does. He has to remain unfazed.
"One child asked me was I going to eat an egg a hen had just laid, and when I said yes, he started shouting that I was a murderer," he says.
"Generally, you explain that they should concentrate on the animal's life; once the animal has had a really good life, don't put so much focus on the last two seconds. We also explain to older classes that not all pigs and poultry in Ireland have the luxury of being free range.
"I'm not trying to convert anybody to eat meat; I'm trying to be open and transparent and educational about what actually happens, and they can make their decision, with a little bit more education behind them."
Eoin generally does a different session with every class; he has to tailor his talk to each age-group.
"With the smaller ones, junior infants, it is more about familiarisation: what do you call the mammy chicken, the daddy chicken," he says. "The older kids get more information.
"It's all unscripted. The direction of the whole conversation could depend on what questions you're asked or what school you're in. It also depends if they've seen me before. We get a lot of repeat business, and if a class is seeing you a second or third time, it's a higher level of info. And the questions are different."
Eoin (41), who always makes sure to emphasise the importance of farming to the rural economy and to rural life, does a lot of his work in Dublin, but his services are in demand as far afield as Killarney.
"There's not many people doing what I'm doing" he explains. "It's not a pet lamb and a llama and a gerbil and some guinea pigs: it's proper farm animals, it's proper education."
Eoin is trying to convince the Department of Education that his enterprise should be categorised as educational rather than entertainment - and that he should be exempt from having to charge VAT.
"The guidelines changed a couple of years ago," he says. "We are campaigning for exemption. A lot of school teachers I have worked with have written letters to the Department, saying they couldn't think of anything more educational."
In addition, Eoin and Olivia - who have three daughters, Anna (9), Kate (6) and Sage (4) - would like to see 'food' being added as a subject to the school curriculum.
Eoin, a nephew of Meath GAA legend Colm O'Rourke, was a late entrant into farming, although some of his uncles farmed, and his parents kept a few animals.
He trained in carpentry and worked in construction. The downturn hit soon after he and Olivia bought Maperath Farm in 2007 - initially, the 15 acres (now expanded to 25) were stocked with horses. After completing his Green Cert at Ballyhaise, Eoin set about turning Maperath into a working free-range farm that would complement Olivia's professional roles: she runs the Headfort Arms Hotel and Vanilla Pod restaurant in Kells, and is a Food Champion with Failte Ireland.
Maperath's main business is poultry farming: Eoin will raise 1,000 turkeys and geese from hatchlings this year to sell mainly to high-end retailers such as Fallon & Byrne and Avoca. With the bulk of the hard work coming in the months leading up to Christmas, the turkeys fit in nicely with the mobile farm, which is a spring, summer and early autumn operation.
Olivia says: "The critical thing with the turkeys and the mobile farm is it's all about the story. We invite people into the story of our production - we have a 'Meet Your Turkey' day. The packaging has all the info about how they've been reared. We're saying you need to connect with your food. If we eat meat, we need to learn to respect it."
Eoin says running a mobile farm - which began when he was asked by his daughter's Montessori to take in a couple of goats four years ago - is not a cushy option. The hours are long and turning off the charm is not an option - no child wants to see a surly farmer.
"For a Dublin school, I need to be down the yard at 5.20am loading the animals," he says. "I usually have to be in the school at 7.30am because it takes me about an hour to set all the animals up. I bring with me about 140ft of sheep gates, which have to be made into maybe six pens. There's all the buckets, feed, hen-laying boxes, signage, then taking out all the animals and putting them into set areas.
"It's a long day, and you're on your feet all day, maybe doing five schools in a week. You're working with kids and animals, which can be stressful. But it's enjoyable. When you're working with different children every day, you can have great craic."
If a hen lays an egg, why can't a pig lay a sausage?
Eoin Sharkey has a treasure trove of amusing misconceptions children have revealed to him during his mobile farm demonstrations, but behind the laughs, he is concerned that Irish people are losing our connection with our rural heritage.
"In Ratoath, the pig was doing a poo and one kid pointed at the pig's bum and said: 'Excuse me farmer, if the poo comes out there, where do the sausages come out?'
"The feeling is, if a hen can lay an egg, why can't a pig lay a sausage?" he smiles.
"I've had children who think the calf is a reindeer. Many don't recognise a chicken - they only know what they're getting on the supermarket shelf.
"Some kids are very confused. I was doing a milking demonstration in Castletown House, and a kid said: 'Mammy, tell that man he doesn't need to milk the cow, he can buy it in the shop instead.'"
Often it's not just the children who are ill-informed about the simplest aspects of farming.
"You'd be amazed how often even the schoolteachers don't know the answers to questions like, what do you call a female sheep?" says Eoin.
"People have become so disconnected - even country kids.
"They see what I call the car window animals - sheep and cattle. But when was the last time they saw a pig? Or geese and turkeys?
"A few years ago, 90pc of people in this country were only one generation away from the land - you had an uncle or a cousin or someone who was farming, and you would go to their farm once a year and run around and see the animals. That has gone now."
See www.facebook.com/maperath.farm/ or contact Eoin Sharkey on 087 9027070
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